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Disagreeing Agreeably

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I am really quite pleased to have seen the back of 2019. I have written previously about how disappointing it was during the latter half of 2019 to witness such deplorable behaviour in public life as the Brexit debate got more and more personal. I very much hope that the British people will manage this year to re-find the spirit of respect and mutual understanding that characterises a civilised society. On Thursday this week, my address to boys at School Assembly was about how I fear that we may be losing the skill of disagreeing agreeably. How can we train our sons to listen with empathy and respond with respect?

After my assembly, I found in Thursday’s Times an article by David Aaronovitch on precisely this topic. He points out that ‘we are increasingly incapable of tackling any problem without dividing into tribes and trying to trash the other side’. This follows a week in which Donald Trump described climate activists as ‘alarmists … who demand … absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives’, concluding that ‘we will never let radical socialists destroy our economy, wreck our country or eradicate our liberty.’ In the United States, climate change has become a partisan left-right issue. Isn’t it extraordinary concludes Aaronovitch that the threat or otherwise from CO2 emissions is considered an ideological question? Surely it should be a scientific matter?

I think it would be hard to argue that society has not become more polarised in recent years. Why is this? I wonder if we can blame the two party structure in the UK and USA, supported by their different ‘winner takes all’ electoral systems? In such an environment, disparaging your only serious opponent can be at least as effective a strategy as promoting your own policies. The constituency system is a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Is there more compromise and mutual understanding I wonder in European democracies with proportional voting systems and where coalitions are commonplace? In a proportional system with several seats up for grabs, it would surely make more sense to engage in positive campaigning about one’s own party’s ideas, knowing that even finishing second or third would enable you to have some representation?

Our media are not necessarily helping. Traditional newspapers are increasingly partial, representing the interests of their millionaire owners. Although I find our television news much more even-handed, in America, your choice to watch either Fox News on the one hand or CNN on the other, will mean that you hear only one side of complex arguments. Most worryingly we now have the social media echo chambers created by the algorithms behind Facebook and Instagram. They are designed to give you more of what you like and it is therefore increasingly difficult for us to get information on both sides of an argument.

Disagreement is a vital ingredient of any decent society, as it helps to define our individuality, to give us freedom and to make our democracies real. In history, those who have disagreed respectfully but passionately have facilitated change and given hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere, whether Galileo, Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks. All of these people were disagreeing with an idea and suggesting a better one. Their measured dignity gave them power through occupation of the moral high ground.

These days I worry that disagreement is rarely civilised. We express our disagreements in radio and TV rants in ways that are increasingly virulent; protests that are increasingly violent; and personal conversations that are increasingly embittering. And we have started to judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically. This polarization is both geographic and social. We live and work in communities where our colleagues and peers are much likelier to share our views. It is so easy for this polarization to get personal: I read that, in the US, fifty percent of Republicans would not want their child to marry a Democrat, and nearly a third of Democrats return the sentiment.

“No one in history has ever been insulted into agreement,” said Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, yet this seems to be an increasingly common method of debate in modern society. The conclusion of my assembly was to give boys some pointers on how they might go about disagreeing in a more constructive way:

  • You don’t have to agree: disagreeing itself isn’t the problem, it’s how we do it.
  • Don’t aim for the middle ground: splitting the difference isn’t the answer when you fundamentally disagree. Listen to the alternative opinion and seek to understand where it comes from. Understanding that rational people don’t necessarily think in the same way as you, is a way of gaining an important sense of perspective on the world.
  • Listen intently and aim for empathy: it’s all about the willingness to take in what the other person says.
  • Dial down the rhetoric and rein in the insults.
  • Understand the difference between fact and opinion: opinions are perspectives to be tested against the evidence, not just weapons to be wielded against our opponents.
  • Identify the point of conflict: then listen compassionately, give your point of view and try to get into the head of your interlocutor.

As you are aware, training the boys how to talk is a key plank in our GREAT men initiative. We appreciate that disagreement with one’s parents is inevitable during adolescence. If you can maintain the moral high ground in sometimes emotive arguments with your son, you will be helping him to learn how to disagree agreeably.

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