I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
In our hyper-partisan times, one could be forgiven for avoiding conflict. After all, people increasingly seem not only to disagree, but to unproductively disagree. No longer is debate driven by a desire to discern truth or to foster connection; instead — especially online and (sadly) on campuses — arguments are often driven by truth’s (and peace’s) two greatest enemies: Ego and the fear of being wrong.
The best learners have open hearts and open minds. Too many people today have just the opposite.
That’s too bad. As Socrates knew (unlike his killers), we learn by confronting challenging ideas — and not soft ideas either, but hard ideas, sharp ideas, lethal ideas, ideas capable of shattering the frozen seas within us. Indeed, not only individuals but entire societies change — often for the better — precisely because they disagree. How else would one characterize the outcome of the American Civil War?
So despite popular opinion, disagreement can be productive. It can drive growth in domains as diverse as spirituality and science. (The latter’s foundation, the scientific method, relies on disagreement.)
Turning unproductive argument into productive disagreement sounds challenging but is surprisingly simple. It simply requires a change in approach.
I cannot take credit for this insight on the importance of approach. Instead, the notion came from reading an excellent new book by Buster Benson, Why Are We Yelling: Learning the Life-Changing Art of Productive Disagreement. While I encourage readers to pick up the book — I’m certainly not providing an exhaustive overview — I found his ideas fascinating enough to include them in this article.
The most useful idea in Why Are We Yelling is that we habitually approach disagreements with three voices: (1) power, (2) reason, and (3) avoidance.
The voice of power is easy to describe. It’s often used by dull minds (e.g., Donald Trump) to bully opponents into submission. It’s the voice we encounter most in modern society, not only in the news, but (too often) when one has the misfortune of confronting abusive employers, spouses, and other bullies. The voice of power is the greatest barrier to productive discourse.
The voice of reason is an infinitely more useful tool than that of power. Yet it has drawbacks: It (1) ignores emotional or contextual cues, (2) sometimes worsens disagreements when used against another voice of reason operating under different premises, and (3) can spell disaster if confronting voices of power. Examples of the third point can be easily extracted from the fates of Socrates, Jesus, and Giordano Bruno, all of whom were sentenced to death because they tried to reason with power.
Poignantly, as the 16th-century scientist Bruno was sentenced by the Church (for daring to suggest that stars may be … stars), he made an excellent indictment of his executioners, purportedly proclaiming: “Maybe you who condemn me are in greater fear than I who am condemned.” That’s what drives all bullies. Fear.
In order to escape bullies or the discomfort of mismatched reason, we often adopt a third voice: avoidance. We disengage from politics. We block anything remotely disagreeable on social media. Engagement is too painful; avoidance is so much easier. Just look at what happened to Bruno. (He was burned alive.)
Yet one cannot grow through avoidance. One can either choose to engage or to wither. Avoidance only leads to anhedonia and regression. Ultimately, it yields stagnation, retreat, and depression.
Okay, enough pessimism. As Benson writes, there is (thank God) a fourth voice. The voice of possibility.
This is the voice Socrates invoked in ancient Athens when, engaging in dialectic, he discovered truths that penetrate philosophy to this day. It’s also the voice that Jesus invoked in Jerusalem. Though both men’s voices were censored — though their voices of possibility were met by the stifling voices of power — their ideas ironically changed history precisely because of such censorship.
Confronted with societal injustice, Jesus and Socrates refused retreat. They spoke. They refused hate; they forgave. And precisely because of their obvious good-faith, their ideas became immortal. Possibility triumphed over power; love triumphed over hate.
Benson’s book is an enjoyable read. The four voices — power, reason, avoidance, and (to turn unproductive argument into productive dialectic) possibility — encompass just one of his central ideas.
I focused on the concept of the four voices because, in this moment of constitutional and moral crisis, one thing is abundantly clear: We must drop the voices of power and reason; we must avoid avoidance.
For the only way for the disagreement threatening to tear our nation asunder to become productive is to approach it in a new way and with a new voice: Possibility. Let’s find solutions. Let’s make something that could destroy our country into something that could save our country.
Our future depends on it.
Previously Published on Medium