The Villianization of Disagreement

By Praveen Bandla

In modern society, statements such as “I don’t agree,” and “I see it differently,” are often associated with anger, disrespect, or avarice. People have lost sight of the value of disagreement – a phenomenon particularly noticeable in politics. Disagreement possesses immense value and should be respected and facilitated in modern-day society.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato presented arguments as a back-and-forth dialogue, or debate, where one party would express their views while another party would either concede or challenge. This kind of discourse between opposing sides produced a linear progression of thought. During this process, theories would be conjured through the presentation of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, laying a more concrete path towards robust principles, allowing for productive discourse between people who disagreed.

Unfortunately, society no longer endorses this kind of dialogue. We tend to judge people for certain beliefs they possess in proxy of their real character. In some cases, our judgment leads to actions with grave implications. When James Damore criticized the gender-based affirmative action policies implemented by his employer, Google, he was fired immediately; in fact, the CEO wrote a public letter disparaging the former employee. Damore’s memo merely quoted scientific literature making the case that occupational misrepresentation was based in biology, while also suggesting ways to effectively incorporate more women into the workforce. Google saw it otherwise, claiming that his writings went against the values and interests of the corporation. Many remark that such a disdain towards reactive judgment is a conservative inclination. However, similar instances are found on the other side of the political spectrum as well. Angela Davis, an activist and scholar, was revoked of the Human Rights award for her support of the BDS movement that aims to end the Israeli Apartheid and liberate the people of Palestine. When asked, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute claimed they acted after hearing from “concerned individuals and organizations.” The underlying reason for these acts, and countless others, is the inherent belief that many members of society possess: we must agree to be associated and disagreement is the result of contradictory morals.

On the contrary, differing views do not always stem from differing morals. The foundation of all our beliefs is comprised of truth conditions. Two people may have varying opinions, albeit sharing the same value behind them. As a result of unclear evidence and partial information – a combination of factors which applies to nearly every topic – people may develop differing approaches to the same objective. Two people may have the same goal: to create equality amongst the genders. One may believe it is crucial to create an environment of equal representation through affirmative action-based policies in the workplace and other settings. Conversely, the other may believe the best approach is to treat every individual with the same perception disregarding gender altogether whilst fostering an environment of equality and intolerance towards sexist views. They may engage in an intense argument over the morality of the stances taken without realizing the true nature of the argument – a debate over approach rather than final objective.

Numerous cases of discourse involve a clash of conflicting shared values opposed to seeking out the righteous one. Two people may share the values of striving for liberty and equality yet still hold differing views on tax laws. A progressive-tax advocate may claim that redistribution of wealth is essential for creating an equal society through bringing every citizen closer to a central income level. Conversely, a flat-tax advocate may argue that inherently owing the state a greater proportion of wealth due to high income status violates people’s liberty. Since neither view violates an agreed upon moral and both persons provide sound arguments, the real debate lies in the varying practicality of each policy.

Regardless of the nature of disagreement, one aspect stands firm – when a system of thought is in place and settled upon, it takes a lot of courage to be at variance. People often resist change, so convincing a large set of people to redirect their line of thought to an unfamiliar path requires a great deal of force. Those who are able to stand up and maintain civil disagreement in an environment of dissimilarminded people should be commended. Instead, we treat disagreement with alienation and abnormality. We take comfort in sharing similar views with the people around us and set our own views as the standard – anything that deviates falls under foreign territory.

We have thereby become strongly opinionated while minimizing disagreement and corrupting its meaning. Blocks of belief have formed, embedding people further into their standpoints while blurring out opposition. The consequence of this, unfortunately, is the belittled nature of disagreement. When western nations began to adopt the secular notion of enacting human beliefs based on inherent qualities and compassion, as opposed to the words of a higher deity, there was a strong pursuit for the most practical set of principles. This resulted in productive discourse where people were willing to concede in an argument and acknowledge valid points presented by an opposing party. People sought out the most tenable assertion, not the most convincing one. In contrast, today’s world involves disagreement in the form of persuasion and criticism, leading to ineffective and heated debates.

The truth is, disagreement is effective and useful. As iterated in the Hegelian dialectic model, disagreement can lead to a more robust form of thought. Moreover, discussions with disagreement inspire spectators to rationalize based on their own perspectives – forming well informed and unbiased opinions.

At UCLA, such respect for disagreement is not found. Classes tend to be biased, discussion sections avoid sensitive matter, and clubs on campus foster conversation between like-minded individuals alone. The result: our views are hardly ever challenged. While we might take comfort in being around people with similar stances on certain topics, we are losing the intrinsic value disagreement offers in the process.

Nevertheless, this can be remedied. Starting with classes, heavy emphasis can be placed on opposing stances, where strong arguments could be presented from all viewpoints. Discussion sections can involve more debates, where students would not be given the opportunity of choosing their stance (thereby forcing the student to explore their line of thought). There could be civil discourse between clubs with contrasting objectives and the promotion of more clubs who remain un-opinionated with the mere objective of facilitating debate. These changes can lead to an overturn of the corrupt version of disagreement that has become prevalent in modern times. It all starts here, at the higher educational level, where we take the students of today and turn them into the leaders of tomorrow.

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