When People Disagree

Written by: 
April 5, 2009

Unless you are a hermit you spend much of your waking hours in relationships – with family, friends, neighbors, country and world. In physical proximity to be sure but, increasingly, in virtual space as well. And as we exchange views within these various groups, we don’t always agree with each other.

Frequently these disagreements are simply matters of taste. For example, my wife likes guacamole. But for me it looks more like, well, let’s just say I find it unappetizing. Yet we do not argue over such differences. Everyone understands that likes and dislikes of this sort are normal, inconsequential and thus not controversial.

Other disagreements can be conclusively solved by measurement, appeal to history or even majority vote. If I say, for example, that gravity is a myth, you can take me to a cliff and invite me to jump off. Perhaps I will levitate like Wile E. Coyote. Or perhaps not. But it isn’t hard to determine one way or the other.

People don’t usually disagree for long about such matters. But in areas where truth is more elusive and the consequences of how we believe are important, we frequently do disagree. And when that happens the course taken in subsequent discussion can vary widely, in both approach and result.

First, let me state the obvious. On things we deem important we also almost always have a position. We are not indifferent as to which option is correct. We likely think ours is and others aren’t. Does God exist? Is Genesis literal? Is abortion wrong? Is global warming happening now? Etc. If we don’t have a position on something it’s tough to disagree about it (although as counter-evidence, consider Monty Python’s Argument Clinic - http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-572077907195969915). Even if our position is fuzzy, conflicted and inconsistent, we aren’t agnostic when it comes to issues that matter to us. And to be completely agnostic in such cases is nigh impossible. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen defines pure agnosticism as analogous to our opinion of “whether the number of Douglas firs in Canada is odd or even”, yet caring deeply about the result.

But having a position is not the same as being positioned. Sure, we all have positions that we hold with conviction and believe are well-founded. But to be positioned infers entrenchment. That is, we will resist movement away from the position because of our deep investment in it.

All these factors intertwine when we come together and discuss an issue. There are a variety of approaches taken, and an equally wide range of results. Let me consider three ways we work with disagreement – from least to most effective.

Talking Past Each other

Positions are usually complex, based on a foundation of prior assumptions and values. But when people disagree it is specific and contextual. The dialog focuses on the specifics but what often goes unrecognized is that the differences go much deeper, and the positions are more derived from a whole world-view than just the contextual details. This is a bit like you and I walking together on a road that forks. You take one path, I take the other. Our perspectives have diverged. Then, when we disagree, we may fail to realize that the underlying issue is back at that divide in the road.

But we ‘discuss’ the issue at hand and the truth of the matter seems evident to us – from our perspective. We try and try and wonder why the other is unpersuaded. It is then all too easy to conclude that they have some deficiency – in argument strength or even morality. But, failing to deal with the more foundational issue where we diverged, we are now merely talking past each other. Far too much discourse, labeled as dialogue but containing none, is actually no more than this.


Even if the dispute does focus at this ‘fork in the road’ the method employed might be adversarial. We want – even need – to win. The image I associate with this type of dialog is arm-wrestling. Two people sit across from each other at a table and try to force the other’s arm down. With our disagreements, all the power we can muster is brought to bear in an attempt to hold, then advance, our position.

The ‘muscle’ in this case is rhetorical. And skill, intelligence, even brow-beating can be effectively used to allow an inferior position to defeat a superior one. This was the classic complaint of Socrates and Plato against the Sophists. These guys taught argumentation technique so that their students could persuade others in order to be successful. Not necessarily to advance a good cause. Just to win.

Why, though, must dispute resolution be so frequently held in thrall to winning? We tell ourselves that we are defending truth, or God, or Adventism, or whatever. But I wonder if we aren’t more likely protecting our own fragile world-view edifice from the fearful prospect of having one or more of its pillars dislodged.

And people ‘convinced against their will are of the same opinion still’. Can you really be persuaded when your interlocutor is conducting an all-out frontal attack? We are generally turned off when someone has more certainty than the subject matter admits. There is a cartoon I like where two young women are having lunch together. One says to the other, “I thought I’d found Mr. Right. But then I found out his first name was ‘Always’”.

Cooperative Investigation

Arm-wrestlers face-off across the table. But the image I associate with cooperative dialog has two or more people on the same side of the table, books open, trying to learn something together. Now to take this approach doesn’t mean you enter into dialog without having any prior positions. Nor does it mean that all participants or their views have equal weight. But it does imply openness and humility – willingness to alter your view if reason and evidence should so indicate.

This is how we all like to think we are operating. But then someone lobs a verbal hand grenade at you – and the ‘war’ is on. Our egos are fragile and our knowledge limited. And some decisions in life have potentially eternal consequences. Time, for us, is always running out. So we study, and dialog, and reflect. It really matters.

The Spectrum website claims it is all about Community Through Conversation. But not just any kind of community or conversation. Al Qaida is a community, furthered in part by conversation. No, here we want an open, nurturing environment that is not afraid to explore issues on which we might disagree, but matter for eternity. And, in so doing, we hope people who read and participate can gain a sense that those who virtually surround them are friends and fellow-travelers.

To achieve this we all must consider how we approach disagreement. Does it hurt and separate? Or can it teach and build bridges of community between us?

Rich Hannon is on the board of Adventist Forum.

He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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