Doctor Who and the Cancellation Monster

How to Disagree

Klint.Svanen.croppedSo you want to learn to disagree... congratulations! There are very few of us interested in mastering this skill rather than, say, learning how to be right or how to be rich. Learning how to disagree is one of the most challenging undertakings any human faces - rocket science is easy by comparison (it's just medium difficulty algebra), and brain surgery is a doddle (you just learn to forget that what you're manipulating is a person). 

Now let me make it clear that phrases like "let's agree to disagree" are not any part of learning to disagree. That particular statement is more about avoiding disagreement, that is, not talking about disagreement. This is actually a great strategy because it's easier to avoid talking about contentious subjects than to learn to talk when you disagree, and a vast number of cities around the world have won centuries of peace from marking certain conversations as off limits. Our trouble is, we've rigged everyone up to a half-baked hive mind called variously 'the internet' or 'social media' (or some such) and consequently made 'not talking' practically impossible. When you can't avoid talking about things, you have to learn to disagree. But we haven't.

Why is disagreement so challenging? It's because everyone must proceed from the basis that they are correct about at least some proportion of what they think, or else be paralysed with uncertainty and anxiety. We learn to defer on some topics (e.g. few astrophysicists master plumbing) and to trust our own judgement on others. To put it another way, we develop a sense of where we can find truth and where we can trust someone else to do so. When we undermine our ability to deal with the truth, then, we also tend to get anxious - or else furious, since as mammals we can always fend off ours fears with anger. So the truth, no matter what it might be, is very important to our well-being.

You may have heard it said that we are now in a post-truth world. What rubbish! Truth is exactly as it always was: complex, unwavering, glimpsed only in shadows. What characterises our current situation is not an absence of truth, but an inability to disagree about it - and everyone is afflicted with this problem. That you can point to obvious examples of lies and deception is rather beside the point, as it only shows that (as always) ambiguities can be exploited by opportunists. If you're sick of the 'post-truth world', what's needed is a path through the cacophony of disagreement - not by dreaming that 'once everyone acknowledges the truth' (i.e. agrees with you) everything will be miraculously resolved, but by trying something rather more radical instead.

Three Principles of Dissensus

Back in December 2019, I posted a very short tweet that I always wanted to get back to. The tweet read:

Three Principles of Dissensus

1. You are allowed to disagree.
2. The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with.
3. Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation.

A consensus is when there is widespread agreement, while a dissensus is when there is widespread disagreement. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests dissensus is essential to anything we might call democracy, and I wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, I don't see any authentic way to claim democracy while also claiming that no disagreement is permitted. As a result, learning to disagree is not only essential for our understanding of truth, it is foundational to any conception of democracy, even the laughable kinds we're currently stuck with.

First Principle: "You are allowed to disagree"

This sounds so obvious you'd think it wasn't worth stating. But it's absolutely crucial, the cornerstone of disagreement, and it's very, very hard to accept this in practice. There will either be numerous topics upon which you cannot bear disagreement (abortion, war, taxes, gender/sex, declawing, meat etc.) or you will have already thrown in the towel on the truth and be unable to accept that any robust agreement is possible in any context - a problem Nietzsche warned us was coming, but that we didn't really understand, and still don't.

The biggest problem with learning to disagree is what psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance', the vehement rejection of something outside of our understanding, since our minds will work to reimagine those who disagree with us in ways that allows us to ignore their humanity (especially when we don't speak to these people face-to-face). Take any of the big political divides of our time (it won't matter which country you live in) and you'll find two main sides positioning themselves against each other, backed up with rhetoric that either claims their side of the non-debate is of especial importance, or denigrates the other side as somehow subhuman. 

Allowing people to disagree with you is difficult. I very much doubt that you are as good at it as you think you are - I've had to work for decades to get even half-way good at it, and I still feel like an amateur.

"But what about such-and-such" you say. Yes, you can still disagree about this. The Dalek wants to exterminate you and all non-Daleks, and while you certainly won't let that happen without a fight you can allow them to hold their wildly xenophobic views while still insisting, quite rightly, that they are not entitled to kill you or others, not to mention preventing them from doing so (although ideally not by exterminating them...). Even a Dalek could be part of a democracy, provided it could lay down its weapons. And that's what most of us are lacking: that willingness to disarm, to let other people disagree.

Second Principle: "The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with."

Provided you can accept that other people are holding (at least some) valid-but-different views to you, the next problem is recognising that you both could be right but in different ways. We all find truth in a unique and unrepeatable fashion, but we don't necessarily need to doubt that we are all finding (some) truth. The trouble is, we consistently act as if a great deal of disagreements have a single answer... working from that premise, wherever you strongly feel the truth of your own position, anyone who doesn't hold that view must be wrong.

But that's not necessarily the case. Even someone who denies that 2+2=4 might be correct - for instance, while thinking about numbers in base 3, where 2+2=11.

Beware of assumptions founded on mathematics and logic, though - in what's called Boolean logic something must be either true or false, but that's solely because that's how those terms are defined in that particular mathematical system. But the situations facing us are never that simple, and even when we can model part of the world through numbers, getting to the truth of what those numbers mean is more complex than merely stating the mathematics. Even the algebra of physics involves interpretation, as the great twentieth century researchers discovered, and conversely even statistics, the most interpretative domain in mathematics, can successfully reveal aspects of the truth when it is deployed with care.

You almost certainly have part of the truth. What you logically cannot have is those other parts of the truth you haven't yet considered - and these are denied to you until you can allow for the possibility of discovering fragments of truth in viewpoints that appear wildly misguided to you. 

Third Principle: "Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation."

Both the Sufi and the Hindus tell a story of blind people describing an elephant differently based on the part of the animal they're touching - there is more wisdom in that story than we like to admit, but there's also a risk of us taking this tale too literally. We assume, for instance, that since we can find no way of reconciling rival claims to whatever we hold to be true, there is no conceivable elephant to be found. But imagine that what was being described is not an elephant but, say, a rainbow at a waterfall. This will provoke just as varied responses from those using touch and sound to encounter it - "a rainbow is wet", "a rainbow roars", "a rainbow is slippery". From the point of view of someone who sees the rainbow, it's impossible to understand why anyone would make such ludicrous claims, yet the people speaking are only mistaken about the name they are using for the thing they're describing.

Whenever we insist upon only one valid interpretation of a situation, we are shutting down the possibility of finding the truth. Instead, we are gambling that the interpretation we have already chosen cannot be improved... even though we have no way of knowing how much of the puzzle we have managed to assemble. By learning to find the truth held in other people's perspectives, we can resolve discrepancies that at first we will not even notice...

First, we have to be able to disagree, then we have to allow for the possibility of truth coming down apparently incompatible paths. Only then can we start to put it all together... and at no point can we be certain that there is not something else - something not yet revealed to us - that we will still need to take into consideration.

Learning to Disagree

Now if you've taken any of this advice seriously, you might be worried about the awesome challenge of being able to disagree with everyone. Fortunately, you don't need to disagree with everyone directly (in fact, you cannot, simply because there's so many of us). Besides, learning to disagree is a community endeavour, since everyone you can successfully disagree with becomes a part of your own community, now matter how distant their connection to you.

The challenge as I see it is to find those arguments where people cannot manage to disagree, and try to find new ways of approaching the conflict. Those arguing probably won't want to stop and listen to what others have to say - they'll likely be too busy trying to exterminate their own Daleks, or at the very least discredit them, and that will keep them very busy. Also, you probably won't know how you can help (and if you know with certainty how to help, you definitely need to reconsider the second principle, above).

So... just listen. And keep practising how to disagree until we all finally master it.

The opening image is a detail from Hilma af Klint's Svanen (The Swan).


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Excellent. Thanks for sharing these very needed words.

Thanks for the kind words, Robert! And good luck with your own disagreements. :)


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