Agreeable Disagreement Can Be the Antidote to Scornful Division
Civil discourse has become ragged and rare. Name-calling and ridicule are more common than thoughtful engagement and potential agreement.
Achieving thoughtful engagement, it turns out, requires commitment to engage without name-calling and ridicule but with purpose and civility. Two recent online engagements reinforced that conclusion.
A Facebook friend (and often foe) posted on why more U.S. investment in military and financial aid to Ukraine is a lost cause. The post was mostly Republican talking points. But instead of attacking, I suggested the Ukrainians could have been in a stronger position if the U.S. had given its okay earlier to provide advanced fighter jets in support of its counteroffensive. My Facebook friend agreed but said it takes a long time to train pilots to fly advanced fighter jets.
Then our conversation turned to Vladimir Putin, the man willing to wait for victory. We agreed Putin is the embodiment of evil.
We didn’t change each other’s point of view. We merely found an avenue for discourse. We didn’t dodge disagreement. We found a small chunk of agreement.
The real victory: it might be easier next time to rediscover that same avenue on another disputed subject.
The second engagement was with a long-time colleague. He shared a post on LinkedIn by respected individuals arguing that Oregon’s Measure 110 was a mistake that has led to open street drug use and an increasing number of fatal drug overdoses.
In a response, I disagreed that decriminalizing drugs was the wrong move. The wrong step was failing to have adequate and available addiction treatment resources available when Measure 110 became effective. I said recriminalizing drug use would put people in jail, not in treatment.
My response started a short exchange, which ended by my admission that no one is quite sure what to do. Street drug use and overdoses are unacceptable. I ended by suggesting we needed more treatment options and even more patience in helping people find a way out of addiction. My colleague agreed.
We didn’t solve a vexing problem. We did exchange ideas. We reached a common conclusion that the problem we discussed doesn’t have an easy answer. That’s short of agreement but nevertheless common ground.
A key ingredient of civil discourse is the willingness to disagree agreeably.
What does it take to engage in civil discourse? It may seem counterintuitive, but a key ingredient is the willingness to disagree agreeably. I could have easily read and moved on from the two posts from a Facebook friend and LinkedIn connection. I could have responded with a chippy comment. Instead, I chose to engage them to express a different view while validating their initiative to introduce contentious topics.
Civil discourse over disagreement requires energy and time. It would be easier and time-saving to avoid. But it also would be a lost opportunity to engage, put your own views on the line and be open to other views, even to the point of changing your own mind.
Engaging someone with whom you disagree isn’t always comfortable. Your views get challenged. Your arguments disputed. You don’t automatically wind up in agreement. But discomfort in discourse can be revealing, eye-opening and thought-provoking. Partners in the exchange leave it with a new and possibly deeper perspective.
Uncomfortable conversations can easily erupt into angry exchanges, which can test the patience of one or both people who have engaged. Winning cannot be the goal. The best you can hope for is constructive sharing and fresh thinking. If a mind is changed in the exchange, it shouldn’t be an excuse for gloating. It should be a hint that engagement has mind-opening potential for you as well as those you engage.
Raw conversations that dominate on social media have a toxic effect on the public weal. Politically aligned news media and podcasts provide much of the poison that pollutes the public square. A handful of self-promoting politicians have taken on a side gig as daily agitators. In this environment, truth-telling is optional and civil discourse is road kill. Emojis replace commentary. Snide earns clicks.
Social media may have been intended as a place for congratulatory notes, birthday wishes and vanity videos – as well as a gold mine for data collectors to sell to advertisers. But social media also has simultaneously become a marketplace of ideas and a cesspool of untruth. It is impossible to separate the marketplace from the cesspool, but we should aspire at least to find an elevator from the latter to the former.
Civil discourse may not be the final solution to the problems we face. Maybe the divisions are too great. The line between truth and fiction too blurred. The willingness to listen too dulled.
The stakes are too high to surrender to division, disinformation and snark. Talking through disagreement may not produce agreement but it can produce a willingness to agree to disagree. Compared to what we are witnessing now, a patch of engagement is better than an open sore.