The Art of Disagreeing

Aug 01, 2023

It can happen at dinner with family, or chatting with friends at the gym, or maybe just making small talk with a co-worker. Someone registers an opinion or point of view. The chit chat turns up a notch.

Before long, though, it becomes increasingly clear that everyone doesn’t quite see eye to eye. One party gets defensive, another gets critical, and a third tries to play the role of the Swiss by changing the subject. Voices start to rise in pitch and volume until someone frustratingly demands, “How can you think that?”

A lost art

It seems that we have collectively lost the ability to disagree well. Maybe we never really had it, but it’s certainly gone missing. Gone are the skills of nuanced thinking, thoughtful debate, and empathetic listening. The desire to place oneself in someone else’s shoes or even to “agree to disagree” seems like a distant memory. Now, it seems that we just want to be right. If someone disagrees with us, we simply shout louder, as if volume was what our point was lacking.

Perhaps more troubling still is that it seems Christians aren’t any better at disagreeing than any other group. Facing unimaginably complex issues of race, economics, and foreign policy, each side has dug in their heels and declared their position as the only reasonable option.

We may tell ourselves that our obstinacy is a result of our firm convictions. “We know what we believe and we’re passionate about it. Isn’t that a good thing?” Perhaps, but lately I seem to have encountered fewer passionate individuals debating persuasively and far more arrogant bullies shouting obnoxiously. And that is an incredibly important distinction. While the former breeds deeper understanding and gives birth to real collaboration, the latter does little but create isolated ideologues, certain of their rightness and utterly alone.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we learn the art and skill of disagreeing well. The stakes are too high in too many arenas for us to simply dig in our heels and cross our arms.

Poverty, health care, gender issues, climate change, sexuality, race, gun control, disease, foreign policy, economics, aging…

In hopes of a more effective dialogue in all arenas, here are a couple of thoughts on how we might disagree more fruitfully.

1. Distinguish between essentials and non-essentials 

“In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity.”

While you’ll often hear these words invoked, especially in church settings, it seems that we often entirely miss the point in at least two significant ways. First, we fail to notice that in distinguishing between the essential and the non-essential, the author is clearly stating that everything is NOT essential. To put it another way, we don’t have to take a stand and demand agreement about everything. Some things are that important, but most are not. Historically, Christians have done a lousy job telling the difference. We’ve been just as likely to cause a schism over style of music or clothes we wear as we were over the nature of Christ’s divinity. Only one of those is essential.

Second, we tend to nod along to the last part of the statement, and then quickly forget it as soon as someone disagrees with us. “In all things charity” means that regardless of the issue or the stance, we still respond with love. We may rightly disagree, and we may pray for changed hearts, but we never react with hate.

2. Show some humility 

You aren’t right about everything. In fact, some of your opinions are foolish. They are the result of bad information and unconscious prejudices. Don’t worry, though, the same is true for all of us. It doesn’t mean we are bad people, but it does mean that we should stop pretending that we’re the final word on everything from theology to economic theory. Almost weekly I read something that makes me feel really uninformed and ignorant.

The longer I’ve lived, and the more I’ve read, studied, and interacted, the more I’ve realized that there are absolutely brilliant, devout, wonderful people who disagree with me. They don’t disagree because they are less pious or less intelligent, they simply see things differently. Not better or worse, just differently. When we wall ourselves off from those who think differently from us, this is an easy point to forget. We can very quickly begin to deride our opponents as if they were simply a set of beliefs, rather than a human being with inherent dignity. “In all things charity.”

3. Expand your circle of friends 

The individuals that I’ve encountered who are most arrogantly sure of their opinions, who most acutely lack empathy, all have one thing in common: they are surrounded by people who look exactly like them and who think exactly like they do.

Instead, consider the thoughts of professor and author Jonathan Haidt who speaks about the difference between disgust and love and how to move away from talking about groups and towards talking with individuals. 

Our context, our experiences, and our perspectives represent only a tiny sliver of the reality God has chosen to reveal. To learn how to agree to disagree and still be friends, we might have to expand our circle of friends.

I realize this blog may seem an odd departure for me. I thought this was a topic worth tackling. I write it in hope for a better future.

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