The Art of Disagreeing

Is learning how to disagree an art? You may disagree. However, that is entirely within your rights. Art is notoriously subjective, after all. Moreover, I acknowledge that the fact you disagree is very unlikely to be motivated solely by the desire to somehow hurt me; if it is, then I regret to inform you that although our opinions are, in some mysterious way, part of ourselves, I am well aware that they are opinions and thus I should not attach any personal attachment to them. So let us note that we disagree on this matter, and proceed with our discussion.

The above paragraph contains much that I aspire to be, and also does remind me why some tell me that at times I give off every sign of being somewhat android-like. But hey, as a mid-millennial (born in ’91, so barely old enough to remember pre-Internet days but young enough to be shaped very much by it), I’ve been exposed to enough disagreement that a strategy had to be developed to survive and indeed thrive online. More personally, as a Catholic raised conservative (although now a known troll with a grab-bag of oft-conflicting views) in Seattle, learning how to disagree politely was a necessity in maintaining amity.

It’s interesting that such a thing is not taught, but rather expected to be learned. When you think about it, humans are hardwired to find agreement if possible in your own tribe, and then dwell comfortably ensconced in an environment where your shared beliefs are reinforced and peace of mind remains unchallenged. But that is difficult to do, as the near-limitless network of the internet will both enable you to find likeminded others but also dooms you to the potential for exposure to ideas and facts you may find downright distasteful. So why not learn how to disagree? I am hardly an expert in anything, but given a rich history of disagreeing passionately, disagreeing purely for the hell of it, disagreeing casually, disagreeing to the point I have incurred considerable costs both financial and physical by doing so, and disagreeing because I have an odd mix of beliefs and principles, I figured I may as well spell out the art of disagreeing.

1: Emotion & Ego

Disagreeing is neurologically painful. As in, disagreement with others can produce the same chemicals in your brain that pain does. Much like heartbreak can actually reproduce actual physiological distress, so does disagreement to overall pain. That is because disagreements generally involve emotion and the ego. Our opinions, we like to think, are part of what makes us who we are. They are crucial to our identities.

But only to the extent that we consciously let them. Most of what we believe is likely not strictly provable and therefore not necessarily true. None of us is as objective or rigorously consistent as we like to think we are. So, when any disagreement over any topic whatsoever arises, especially in an emotionally charged scenario, we must recognize the role of the ego and the level of emotion that is currently engaged. Is this disagreement related to something that I like to think is a core part of my identity? How “heated” am I getting given this disagreement? Am I engaging in the classic signs of unconscious distress, e.g. biting my fingernails, rubbing the back of my head, ruffling hair?

In any pending or current disagreement, one must recognize consciously the roles of emotion and ego to start.

2: Detach & Engage

From there, one must emotionally detach, if possible. I say only if possible because although we should all be able to rule our emotions, we aren’t perfect. Also, one’s inhibitions may be compromised; shockingly enough, I find after a significant amount of booze I am somewhat less thoughtful and more prone to emotional outbursts. (On a sidenote, isn’t it hilarious how we can deliberately deprive ourselves of our rationality and self-control, some of our best attributes?)

But we shouldn’t detach just from emotions. We also must detach from the specific environment and recognize precisely what the other person is likely feeling as well. It is critical to do so to be able to lay the foundation to engage. That person is potentially also feeling discomfort, and, if they are being deliberately malicious, is also facing the same challenges to their ego. They may or may not really mean what they say, or understand the full implications, but they are using the imperfect tools of language and speech to try to convey something that may be meaningful to them. So just as you are, they too may be. It usually takes a step or two for me to recall that, and sometimes sadly I don’t, not having the hugest range of empathy (the flipside of having the emotional range of a teaspoon, as a dearly loved one once told me, is that my amount of empathy is not huge).

3: Repair & Relate

Many writers far more eloquent than I have found ways to convey how little other people think about you. That seems harsh, or even rude, but honestly, it’s true. People generally tend to be preoccupied with their own affairs. Disagreements are no different, and are arguably more exacerbated nowadays, because it’s never been easier to tell someone they are wrong, even anonymously. But once one has detached and engaged, then one can repair the thread of the conversation that has been disrupted by a disagreement. It’s not that the thread is irrevocably torn – perhaps if I was a better writer I’d use the metaphor of a flowing stream disrupted by a large stone.

And the surest way to repair that thread is to relate. It is not common in usual casual conversation to be frank about acknowledging a disagreement to the full extent that I have above, but as I am not a fan of many social norms or conventions, I happily flout them by saying something along the lines of “I see that we are disagreeing and it’s okay, for I respect your opinion and recognize that I may not be right, but we can leave it at that and move on”. One of my dearest colleagues has Slacked me the phrase “let’s move on” approximately 341 times thus far. If I were a better skilled conversationalist, maybe I’d have a defter tactic, but nobody has ever accused me of subtlety before, so it is what it is.

From there, as you will recognize in many conversations is a natural human instinct, people tend to find something in common once again to reassure the other person that they are on “the same page”. (That may be the most commonly used phrase, actually.) Next time you are at a bar and overhear a conversation, it is quite likely that you will recognize this pattern in many a dialog. It makes sense, right? After disagreement, you wish to return to harmony, to once again find common ground so that you can reassure the person you are speaking to that you are in accord. It’s the human and humane thing to do.

Why does all of this matter? Because in 2020, we are disagreeing more than we have in quite a while. It is quite likely that I do not share some of your most passionately held convictions, whereas you may have no idea what mine are. (Frankly, neither do I sometimes.) But disagreement is not the end of the world, despite what most of social media and nearly all media would like you to think. They profit from your outrage and pain, after all. It is okay – more than okay, it is good to disagree, because then we collectively have better odds of arriving at the truth, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket via unanimity. So embrace disagreement.

You can be assured that I shall.

P.S. After further thought and especially the furor around the latest nominee to the US Supreme Court, I wanted to make a note regarding when one ought to disagree. Should I disagree with the mugger who accosts me with a demand for my wallet and phone? Violently. Should I disagree with a friend on abortion? Sure, per my beliefs and worldview. But unless actual violence is set to occur, one can still disagree and value the relationship. Few relationships should ever be sacrificed over matters of principle, because most of the time they don’t need to be. Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both avowed intellectual enemies and yet friends. Hector and Achilles bonded before their final duel. In the last days of 1914, soldiers played football in the no-man’s-land of France. Violence and toxicity – essentially, when the costs of disagreeing become too high to be borne within reason – are really the only occasions for letting an irrevocable rift emerge. Sadly, these times do occur. Over the next decade, I am likely to lose friends due to my beliefs. The thing is, that’s okay – to everything, there is a season. Sometimes it is better to gently fade rather than rage against the dying of the light.

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