In Praise of (Good) Disagreements

As they say, if two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

It may seem odd that I advocate for more disagreements in a blog named Indisputably.  But that’s exactly what I’m doing.  Actually, just more good disagreements.

Dying Art of Disagreement

This post riffs on a column by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, The Dying Art of Disagreement.  The following are excerpts from his column and I encourage you to read the whole thing.  I don’t agree with everything in it and I think that some generalizations are overbroad.  But the point of reading a good provocative piece like this is to prompt us to test (and perhaps revise) our thinking.

“[T]o say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non [“even if all others, not I”] — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere.  Galileo and Darwin;  Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo;  Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.

. . .

“[E]very great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea.  Socrates quarrels with Homer.  Aristotle quarrels with Plato.  Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both.  Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

. . .

“[Constructive disagreements] are never based on a misunderstanding.  On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension;  from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.  In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well.  You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely.  You need to grant your adversary moral respect;  give him the intellectual benefit of doubt;  have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning.  And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.

. . .

“[A] consequence of identity politics is that it has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short.  Any argument that can be cast as insensitive or offensive to a given group of people isn’t treated as being merely wrong. Instead it is seen as immoral, and therefore unworthy of discussion or rebuttal.  The result is that the disagreements we need to have — and to have vigorously — are banished from the public square before they’re settled.  People who might otherwise join a conversation to see where it might lead them choose instead to shrink from it, lest they say the ‘wrong’ thing and be accused of some kind of political -ism or -phobia.  For fear of causing offense, they forego the opportunity to be persuaded.

. . .

“[W]hat makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground.  Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves.  We take exaggerated and histrionic offense to whatever is said about us.  We banish entire lines of thought and attempt to excommunicate all manner of people — your humble speaker included — without giving them so much as a cursory hearing.  The crucial prerequisite of intelligent disagreement — namely:  shut up;  listen up;  pause and reconsider;  and only then speak — is absent.”

Disagreeing is Hard For Us to Do

Although it is an article of faith in our dispute resolution field that conflict can be constructive, disagreeing can be hard to do, even for us.  This observation seems at odds with Mr. Stephens’s thesis, though it should not be surprising that many people in our field (myself included) generally prefer to avoid disagreement.

Good disagreements are essential to us in many ways.  Being in the learning business, we and our students and clients cannot learn as much as possible unless we consider alternative perspectives.  Our body of knowledge has always evolved and now it is changing at ever-faster rates.  Contemporary canons always are imperfect and to make progress, we must regularly test and improve existing theories.  And, of course, disagreement is the very subject of our work.

Ideally, we would have a happy medium of not too much and not too little disagreement.  Taking dogmatic positions without considering others’ views obviously is very problematic.  But so is always agreeing or avoiding disagreement.

For most of us, disagreeing is scary.  It is easy to interpret disagreement as a criticism of intelligence, judgment, character, status, etc.  Disagreement can produce tension, invite retaliation, and lead to complete loss of relationships.  By contrast, agreeing generally feels safe and comfortable.  But avoiding disagreements about important matters also can estrange people if we feel that these issues are “off limits” or that other people aren’t being “real” with us.  Perhaps paradoxically, good disagreements actually can strengthen relationships when we demonstrate that we respect each other and take each other seriously.

In theory, good mediation is designed to help people communicate their disagreements constructively.  However, many civil mediators and lawyers avoid this objective these days, spending a lot of time in caucus, concentrating mostly on reaching settlement by second-guessing what would happen in litigation.  Although this approach is appropriate in some cases, it can deprive people opportunities they would value to deal directly with each other about their real conflicts.  Indeed, some mediators and collaborative professionals make a point of conducting processes specifically to enable people to have real disagreements and then resolve them.

Part of the problem is that many of us aren’t good at expressing disagreement, especially in today’s polarized society.  It’s hard when so much rhetoric is absolute and inflammatory.  Disagreeing constructively requires care and discipline, as Mr. Stephens describes.  Although it’s not realistic to expect that people would fully follow his prescription for good disagreements, it’s a useful ideal to strive for.

It’s easy to take common ground for granted and jump right into disagreement, which can escalate conflict unnecessarily and unproductively.  It helps to begin by respectfully expressing areas of agreement before identifying differences, but we often skip that initial step.

Academic and Professional Disagreements Can Be Hard Too

One might think that it is relatively easy for academics, practitioners, and other professionals to disagree about dispute resolution issues because the issues are not personal (or don’t seem so).  Disagreements about these issues usually are considered normal and desirable as the way to advance knowledge in a field.  My impression is that we have fewer disagreements in dispute resolution than other fields.

I suspect that most DR academics feel uncomfortable if we criticize others’ ideas in our writing, especially if we disagree with friends.  I feel that way.  Even so, I have made a point of respectfully identifying important areas of disagreement with ideas I think are problematic.  If I didn’t do so, I think I would be abdicating my academic responsibility and wasting my privilege by failing to advance our field as much as I could.

Part of my wariness is because it seems that many people in our community are reluctant to challenge each others’ ideas.  We have had some long-standing differences, such as about appropriate (and inappropriate) philosophies of negotiation and mediation, but I think that we often haven’t done a good job of really engaging with each other.  Too often, we haven’t been open to other perspectives and so we argue past each other without really engaging in the way that Mr. Stephens describes.  Or we simply avoid disagreements.  Is that your sense too?  Do you think that there are issues in our field needing good debates?

I don’t want to overstate this view.  For example, Josh Stulberg and Larry Susskind famously debated the parameters of mediators’ neutrality.  Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer have been having a similar discussion about appropriate roles for dispute resolution professionals in a divided nation.  The ABA Section of Dispute Resolution convened roundtables to discuss pre-dispute arbitration clauses in employment and consumer cases and the AFCC has organized conferences to work through disagreements about dealing with domestic violence and shared parenting.  I particularly appreciate Bernie Mayer’s critiques of our conventional wisdom, particularly that we over-emphasize the role of neutrals and we focus too much on resolution of conflict (rather than really dealing with it).  What good disagreements do you think we have had?

Of course, these aren’t comprehensive lists of good disagreements we have had or need to have.  Are there others you want to mention in a comment below?

One thought on “In Praise of (Good) Disagreements”

  1. In reading Mr. Stephens’ article, one particular quote hit home with me. “[T]o disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet to be persuaded of what he has to say.”

    As a sports fan, and specifically a fan of the NFL, this quote made me think of the debate surrounding players’ conduct during the playing of our national anthem. It seems obvious that the national anthem debate is merely a specific issue in the larger debate over political views. But, thinking deeper, there are issues that cut deeply in favor of both sides. Those who are in favor of the players’ right to kneel point to freedom of expression, race relations and police brutality. Some may say those are political issues, but they should be issues both sides of the aisle care about. Those who want the players to stand point to respecting the flag and respecting service members. But once again, no NFL player who has knelt has come out to say he means to disrespect our flag or our service members.

    The whole debate shows that as a society we have a problem “disagreeing well,” as Mr. Stephens describes it. To put it in terms I have learned in my Alternative Dispute Resolution class in law school, “disagreeing well” can only be achieved by one thing: focusing on interests and not positions. In the national anthem debate, the positions are stand or not stand. But, as mentioned earlier, the interests run so much deeper. If we focus on “having sympathy for [our counterpart’s] motives and participate empathically with [our counterpart’s] line of reasoning,” maybe we can find a solution in the debate that will further everyone’s interests.

    Disagreements are necessary to move forward. But, in order for disagreements to have any utility, both sides of the disagreement must “disagree well” to bridge the gap.

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