We should disagree more

The biggest problem in American politics is that liberals and conservatives don’t disagree enough. They should disagree more.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

There’s a difference between understanding and agreement. Understanding means seeing things from the other person’s point of view, and knowing what they really mean. The opposite is misunderstanding — you think you know what they mean, but you didn’t quite get it right.

This is clearly a different thing than agreement vs disagreement. But they’re related. In order to agree or disagree with someone, you first have to understand them.

Let’s suppose someone advances a claim like “gender is a social construct.” There are three ways you can respond to this person’s claim in your mind:

  • understand, agree
  • understand, disagree
  • misunderstand

Because as soon as you misunderstand it, you may think you agree or disagree, but you’re doing neither. You’re no longer thinking about the original claim. For instance: “You must mean that there’s no such thing as male or female! But that’s obviously wrong.” (Then throw in some personal insult like “libtard” to spice it up.) This kind of reaction is not disagreement. It’s misunderstanding.

When I browse through comment threads and other political discussions between laypeople (or even TV personalities), I see a lot of misunderstanding (the third option above). I don’t see very much disagreement (the second option). This is what I mean when I say that liberals and conservatives should disagree more.

In order to disagree, you have to understand, and in order to understand, you have to put your sword down and work in a good-faith effort to find out what the other person really means. If your first interpretation sounds obviously wrong, you would have to consider the possibility that you didn’t quite get what they meant. (Maybe you did get it right, but you won’t know unless you engage in some open dialogue first.)

This kind of dialogue does not betray your political ideals. Listening to someone does not mean you have to agree with them at the end! In fact, you probably won’t. And that’s good!

This is important for intra-party dialogue as well. Do you actually agree with every point of your own party’s platform? For the points that you do agree with, are you sure you understand them? And if you voiced a disagreement, would other people of your political persuasion listen and consider your point of view? Or would they use social pressure to get you to stop disagreeing?

The next time you’re in a political discussion, try to really disagree with someone. It might be harder than you think. And if you aren’t up to this kind of engagement, consider what that means for your political beliefs. Do you actually disagree with the other party as much as you think you do?

(This was partly inspired by an excellent post by Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex. He focuses a bit more on rhetoric and data-gathering, while we focus more on communication and introspection.)

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