Learning to Disagree

June 06, 2024 23:33

A core part of growing up, is coming to grips with two important facts:

Firstly, it is possible for two reasonable individuals – each equipped with sufficient knowledge, insights, and understanding of the world around them – to come to disparate conclusions on the same question and matter.

Secondly, it is reasonable – and indeed advisable – to think that these two individuals should disagree civilly: that is, to hold different opinions from one another, without resorting to vitriolic exchanges, terse remarks, brash humiliation, and fundamentally uncouth behaviours.
Learning to disagree is important, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it is vital as a means of instilling intellectual humility. We may well have sound and evidenced-informed reasons to disagree with another individual. Yet in refusing to entertain their views, throwing their criticisms out the window, or dismissing their suggestions altogether, we would effectively be closing the door to reasonable and emphatic dialogue – which is oft necessary in forcing a rethink and critical reflection, especially in the presence of groupthink.
Such processes may not bring us to change our minds and opt for a different conclusion – in fact, we may become doubly assured of the veracity and strength of your original position. Even then, at the very least, we would be engaging and believing in living truth, as opposed to foregone conclusions and dogmatic propositions.

In failing to take seriously countervailing viewpoints, we would be shutting ourselves off and closing the doors to constructive, well-intentioned suggestions aimed at enabling our improvement. We would also be inadvertently leaving ourselves more exposed to those who criticise and attack us with malicious intent. Indeed, in refusing to accept the inoculation of reasonable, good-faith dissent, we are thereby opening up the window to invasive and hostile takeovers by viruses that lack the nuance and candour that underpin the dissent.

Secondly, learned disagreement is vital in enabling us to navigate complex inter-personal, inter-communal, and inter-state relations in a world where not everyone sees eye to eye with one another – almost trivially. Competitive, critical, and intellectually sharp criticism should be welcome: after all, what’s the worth and value in a public sphere that speaks with only one, staid, sterile voice – stripped of the pluralism and diversity that render the human condition so unique? On the other hand, vitriolic, emotive, and condescending patronisation does not – and will not – contribute towards a conducive debate. Indeed, remarks of such nature would only alienate, as opposed to engaging, skeptical audiences.

In life, we will face folks whose comments can appear hurtful, if not downright insolent. We cannot control what they say, or how they say it – unless we are to adopt the censorious and coercive practices of the most atavistic and wanton of regimes, e.g. Stalin’s Soviet Union. Short of such institutions, then, we must focus on what we can control – our attitudes, reception, and judgment of such speech. How we react to critical and potentially antagonistic remarks, says more about our characters than about the remarks and the speakers from which they originate. There is a reason ancient China is known to be a civilised nation of propriety (liyi zhibang) – we may not concur with our guests, but we will defend to our deaths their ability to speak freely on our soil, so long as they abide by minimal requirements concerning “li”.

Thirdly, healthy and articulate disagreement, as expressed in public, serves as a core pillar of all mature, well-functioning democracies. We should champion individuals’ rights to call out, offer scathing critiques towards, challenge and question one another’s views – for that is how society, as a whole, evolves. The freedom of speech is not inalienable because of some deontic, esoteric, metaphysical reason. To me, the most compelling defense of the state’s upholding of free speech (albeit with clear limits when it comes to hate speech or incitement) is that it allows it to communicate unambiguously to the world: it views the eclectic heterogeneity of its citizens as a positive – and not a negative.

Not only must individuals learn to disagree, so, too, must nation-states and their representatives. In face of global challenges ranging from climate change to pandemics, from the rise of AI to geopolitical and territorial skirmishes, it is evident that our world today is precipitously fragmented, and bogged down in disputes between stakeholders with divergent, if not directly contradictory, interests. Resolving such disagreements is impossible, but the least we can do is to accept and embrace this fact of “innate disagreeability”, and come to celebrate – as opposed to seeking to futilely eradicate – our differences.

Assistant Professor, HKU