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“I respectfully disagree” – how to have a proper argument

by Dr Simon Longstaff AO
02 October 2015
SOCIETY, RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, The Ethics Centre’s interactive art installation asked, what do you wish we could talk more about? One respondent asked how we can “stop shutting down other people’s arguments.” In response, Simon Longstaff explains what’s wrong with our current style of argument.

Why do we find it so hard to discuss difficult issues? We seem to have no trouble hurling opinions at each other. It is easy enough to form into irresistible blocks of righteous indignation. But discussion – why do we find it so hard?
 
What happened to the serious playfulness that used to allow us to pick apart an argument and respectfully disagree? When did life become ‘all or nothing’, a binary choice between ‘friend or foe’?
 
Perhaps this is what happens when our politics and our media come to believe they can only thrive on a diet of intense difference. Today, every issue must have its champions and villains. Things that truly matter just overwhelm us with their significance. Perhaps we feel ungainly and unprepared for the ambiguities of modern life and so clutch on to simple certainties.

 
Today, every issue must have its champions and villains. Perhaps we feel ungainly and unprepared for the ambiguities of modern life and so clutch on to simple certainties.


Indeed, I think this must be it. Most of us have a deep-seated dislike of ambiguity. We easily submit to the siren call of fundamentalists in politics, religion, science, ethics… whatever. They sing to us of a blissful state within which they will decide what needs to be done and release us from every burden except obedience.
 
But there is a price to pay for certainty. We must pay with our capacity to engage with difference, to respect the integrity of the person who holds a principled position opposed to our own. It is a terrible price we pay.
 
The late, great cultural theorist and historian Robert Hughes ended his history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, with an observation we would do well to heed.
 

The need for absolute goodies and absolute baddies runs deep in us, but it drags history into propaganda and denies the humanity of the dead: their sins, their virtues, their failures. To preserve complexity, and not flatten it under the weight of anachronistic moralising, is part of the historian’s task.

 
And so it is for the living. The ‘flat man’ of history is quite unreal. The problem is too many of us behave as if we are surrounded by such creatures. They are the commodities of modern society, the stockpile to be allocated in the most efficient and economical manner.
 
Each of them has a price because none of them is thought to be of intrinsic value. Their beliefs are labels, their deeds are brands. We do not see the person within. So, we pitch our labels against theirs – never really engaging at a level below the slogan.
 
It was not always so. It need not be so.
 
I have learned one of the least productive things one can do is seek to prove to another person they are wrong. Despite knowing this, it is a mistake I often make and always end up wishing I had not.
 
The moment you set out to prove the error of another person is the moment they stop listening to you. Instead, they put up their defences and begin arranging counter-arguments (or sometimes just block you out).

 
The moment you set out to prove the error of another person is the moment they stop listening to you.

Far better it is to make the attempt (and it must be a sincere attempt) to take the person and their views entirely seriously. You have to try to get into their shoes, to see the world through their eyes. In many cases people will be surprised by a genuine attempt to understand their perspective. In most cases they will be intrigued and sometimes delighted.

The aim is to follow the person and their arguments to a point where they will go no further in pursuit of their own beliefs. Usually, the moment presents itself when your interlocutor tells you there is a line, a boundary they will not cross. That is when the discussion begins.
 
At that point, it is reasonable to ask, “Why so far, but no further?” Presented as a case of legitimate interest (and not as a ‘gotcha’ moment) such a question unlocks the possibility of a genuinely illuminating discussion.
 
To follow this path requires mutual respect. Recognition that people of good will can have serious disagreements without either of them being reduced to a ‘monstrous’ flat man of history. It probably does not help that so much social media is used to blaze emotion or to rant and bully under cover of anonymity. People now say and do online things few would dare if standing face-to-face with another.
 
It probably does not help that we are becoming desensitised to the pain we cause the invisible victims of a cruel jibe or verbal assault. Nor does it help that the liberty of free speech is no longer understood to be matched by an implied duty of ethical restraint.
 
I am hoping the concept of respectful disagreement might make a comeback. I am hoping we might relearn the ability to discuss things that really matter – those hot, contentious issues that justifiably inflame passions and drive people to the barricades. I am hoping we can do so with a measure of good will. If there is to be a contest of ideas, then let it be based on discussion.
 
Then we might discover there are far more bad ideas than there are bad people.


 
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre. Follow him on Twitter @SimonLongstaff.