On disagreement

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

Disagreements have been with us for as long as people have had opinions, which is to say for as long as there have been people. What is interesting about this historical moment is that thanks to the Internet we can now disagree with people on the other side of the world. Indeed, disagreement has now become a spectator sport on a scale never seen before.

There are broadly three ways one can react to an opinion with which you disagree, You can just shrug, if it’s not something you care about that much. I may think you’re wrong to claim that Sergeant Pepper is the best Beatles album, but frankly I’m not that bothered about it. As my grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own stupid opinion.” Even with social media, I suspect that a lot of shrugging still goes on, but of course the replies that are never posted are effectively invisible.

Alternatively you can try to persuade the other party that they are wrong. This very, very rarely works, but people often try. Abuse certainly never works, although it’s a popular approach. Reasoned argument supported by evidence will very occasionally work, especially if the other party has not decided in advance that this the hill they will die on. But it is surprising how attached people become to their opinions.

Some opinions, indeed, have the character of religious faith. You will never talk someone out of such a tenet. Faith is generally proof against reason, and trying to argue someone out of their beliefs will only irritate them. The best you can do is try to understand what the emotional payoff is for the true believer, and come up with something else that will give them something similar, but this is not always possible.

A conventional economist, for example, will never abandon their faith in endless growth, because it promises that everyone will have goodies forever (everyone probably being defined as the well-to-do, a group that not coincidentally tends to include economists). Since the universe is not in face a limitless sweetie-shop, there is nothing that can deliver that promise, and if that’s what you need to hear then only a fairy-tale will do.

This leads us to the third response to disagreement, which basically means tying someone to a stake and setting fire to them, either literally or metaphorically. If someone finds your view too painful to hear, this is what you will get. The Internet has inevitably led to a great deal of this sort of thing. For some reason, it never occurs to people that they don’t have to read things that they find upsetting. Or else they actually enjoy being upset. I get the impression this is quite common.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of righteous indignation? Many people feel powerless in their lives; industrial civilisation tends to make us all over-dependent on institutions and corporations over whom we feel we can exercise no control. What better outlet than to take it all out on some individual who is – according to our lights – wrong? By attacking them, we identify ourselves as being not wrong, and therefore exempt from such attacks ourselves.

Typically we also proclaim ourselves as belonging to some group. This is something social primates find satisfying, for excellent reasons that have nothing to do with whatever the notional point of disagreement du jour happens to be. But it is not, in any useful sense, argument.

Those wishing to discredit a point of view sometimes do so by pointing out that some bad person also holds, or held, that view. There was an example of this a few years ago where the Heartland Institute sought to discredit climate change by putting up a billboard stating – correctly – that this opinion was shared by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Now I am not personally acquainted with Mr Kaczynski, but I would be prepared to claim that he would also agree that 1 + 1 = 2, and yet nobody so far as I know has argued that this undermines the basis of arithmetic.

Of course this a silly example, but there is a lot of this kind of thinking about at the moment. There are plenty of people prepared to claim that because person X has some attribute that they find obnoxious, nothing said or done by person X can have any value. Take slave-owning. I don’t know about you, but I’m against it. Does that invalidate the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, or the philosophy of Plato, or for that matter the mathematics of Euclid? The entirety of classical civilisation was built, as a practical matter, on slavery. Nevertheless there are still things of value it can teach us.

Because virtue is increasingly identified with group membership, it becomes impossible to bring any nuance to the discussion. As President George W. Bush so memorably put it, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But a person can be right about some things and wrong about others. In rejecting an opinion one need not reject the entire person. Indeed, doing so is the most certain way to guarantee that they will not change their view. We must always remember to distinguish the person from their opinions.

Social media might almost have been designed to foster groupthink. (Maybe it actually was, given that it is really a way of harvesting marketing data, and marketeers love segmentation.) People often complain that society is becoming polarised, that people are speaking past one another, that consensus is impossible on almost anything. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Of course participation in social media is optional, and it is a perfectly reasonable choice to opt out. I have done this myself. Partly this is is because I suffer from hypertension, but also I would hate this kind of thinking to contaminate my personal relationships – by which I mean the actual human beings with whom I interact in the real world. I want the freedom to agree to disagree.

It will be interesting to see what difference, if any, will be made to this by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter. Readers of this blog will be aware that I have some fairly major differences of opinion with Mr Musk; it is unlikely, for example, that he and I will ever see eye to eye on the future of electric vehicles. His avowed motive in buying Twitter, however, is to make it a place where all opinions may be freely expressed – a notion which many people seem to find strangely horrifying. Free speech used to be a pillar of liberalism not so long ago.

It would be nice to think that people might grow up a little, given more exposure to diverse opinions. I’m not holding my breath. What worries me is that Twitter will simply start censoring a different set of opinions instead, and we will be back to where we were. We shall see.

You are, of course, perfectly free to disagree with all of this in the comments below….

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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