The ability to reach agreement with other people is a crucial skill, not only in your career and everyday life, but also in your close relationships. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for disagreement.
Many people tend to shy away from disagreements. After all, we often see videos or images of disagreements spiraling out of control, whether it’s clashes between rival political parties or people feuding on social media. But there is a way to have enlightening and productive disagreements.
That’s one of the main takeaways from this Big Think interview with Bo Seo, an author, journalist, and two-time world champion debater. To Seo, a world where everyone agrees all the time would not only be worse off intellectually, it would be boring.
BO SEO: So, in this time of extreme polarization, the impulse to seek out agreement can feel pretty attractive. And this is the rhetoric of, remember, there is no red America, no blue America. This is the unifying rhetoric of focusing on all of the different things that we have in common rather than the things that bring us apart. The force of that argument derives not only from what we can do when we focus on the agreement between us, but I think also from the shadow that looks, which is disagreements can be really destructive. And so, part of the appeal of that unifying logic comes from conjuring up the boogeyman of what disagreement can be. At least we can have agreement that's a little bit thinner, maybe a little bit blander, just having to do with us being generally human or living in the same place. But it's better than the alternative of divisive and painful disagreements.
So, Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, took a pretty pessimistic view, not only of disagreements, but the kinds of people we become when we engage in disagreements. We become petty, we become defensive. He believed that these petty disputes can grow into a kind of a conflagration that brings down not only relationships, but also nations. And this was a man who lived through periods of war. And so he saw the destructive force that arguments can be. He concluded that the appropriate response was to take on a posture of civil silence towards one another. That we wouldn't engage in these disagreements. That we would as much as possible try to grin and bear to tolerate one another's differences and not to disagree about them overtly, lest the disagreements grow into a state of conflict that none of us can control.
And the honest truth is I felt the force of that wisdom in my day-to-day life when I was feeling like I didn't have a voice, or when I was feeling like my welcomeness in a place was kind of conditional on me not causing too much trouble or rocking the boat. When I've been through periods in my life where I've felt that kind of defensiveness or vulnerability, I often did have the thought it would go a lot easier if we could focus on our similarities and to minimize as much as possible the differences. The problem with that is our commonalities are only one part of the fullness of our relationship with one another. And part of what makes the encounter between two people meaningful is not only all the things that they share, but the differences. And that variety is a source of challenge. It's the way in which we piece together truth from different perspectives. It's the way in which we go beyond ourselves, learn something new, reach for something new. A life built just around agreement is an impoverished life because it requires taking away and ignoring so much of the richness of human relationships and the encounters they give rise to.