Written by Anna Jacklin
In the early part of this year, “Disagreeing Well” was a phrase – and an idea – that seemed to follow me everywhere. Last November, I was part of a discussion group which spent three days talking about, reflecting on, and grappling with the church’s attitudes towards homosexuality in today’s modern world. The people who had been invited into the discussion deliberately spanned the breadth of all possible opinions, and as such, the entire three day conversation was framed in the context of disagreement. Last September, I moved in with four new housemates. That’s five different expectations for what cohabiting might look like, five different assumptions of everyday life, five people living their individual lives and trying to knit those individual lives together to an extent. Almost every single working day of the last year has involved some degree of bickering, friendship break up or full blown argument, which I – in my role as youth worker/primary school teacher – have been obliged to at least acknowledge, if not attempt to resolve.
Here’s the thing. Each of these three situations boil down to the fact that people are different. They have been formed by different experiences; they think differently; they have different priorities; and they have different emotional responses to the different events and people they encounter throughout their very different lives. They will therefore have different opinions, make different choices, and come to different conclusions. People are different, and that’s okay.
Wherever people are different, they will disagree. People disagree about theology, religion, politics. People disagree about dishwasher tessellation, acceptable noise making times in the morning, tidiness preferences. People (especially mini-people) disagree about what games to play, how friendship works, what words and looks and the lack thereof mean. All these disagreements are to be expected; and yet instead of expecting disagreement, we often try to avoid it. Disagreement can of course be destructive, but it isn’t exclusively so. When, not if, we encounter disagreement, we have an opportunity to embrace our differences, value diversity, and disagree well. Working towards peace in any scenario should never be about attempting homogeneity; rather, a peaceful outcome is one where all sides understand each others’ viewpoints, and can find respect for those holding them – even though they cannot agree with the opinions themselves.
Early last Friday, when the results had been counted, it became apparent that on one particular issue I disagree with 17.4 million Britons. I probably agree with every single one of them on a myriad of different options. Conversely, while we may have put a cross in the same box last Thursday, on different issues and at different times I will also disagree with the other 16 million people. However, in the aftermath of the Brexit announcement it soon became apparent that Britain was not going to disagree well. We posted over simplified judgements on social media. We offhandedly labelled people with brazenly derogatory terms. We drew up non-existent battle lines between “in” and “out” and systematically dehumanised the people on the other side of our imaginary walls. We despised the people who sat on the fence, for surely they were to blame. Instead of remembering the beauty that is the diversity of human experience, we allowed our disagreement to become a reason for dismissal at best, and hatred and violence at worst.
While I know it is far more complex than this, the prime minister’s resignation was disappointing. It felt like it was fostering a narrative of eliminating disagreement at all costs; when you disagree with popular opinion, leave. If you disagree, you no longer have a voice here. How terrifying a world we live in, if we silence those who think differently to us.
So what does disagreeing well look like for post-Brexit Britain? Far more importantly, what does it look like for us all as day in, day out, we encounter different people with whom we will disagree with on all manner of issues? These ideas may seem small, but I dare you to imagine – just for a moment – what the world would look like if we all took a step or two towards disagreeing well.
Look for similarities, not differences: I love the way Ban Ki-moon puts it: “What unites is so powerful it could easily overcome what divides us.” You may feel like you disagree with someone on the most fundamental of issues, you may be opposite ends of the spectrum on something that you are incredibly passionate about – but at the very least, you are both human. Start with that nugget of common ground, and search for other ways that you are similar. Yes we are all different, but in the context of vast, and very significant similarities (you share 70% of your DNA with a slug, for goodness sake). Don’t see those you disagree with as “other” because, very simply, “other” is how wars start.
Take a moment to hear someone’s story: The aim is not to agree with them, but to understand them. You may not like bananas – but can you understand that the person sitting opposite you, for reasons that you may not share and from logic that you may not follow, has decided that they like bananas. Go and find someone you disagree with and sit down with them. Listen to their ideas, listen to their thought processes, listen to their story, because when you listen, you give dignity and restore humanity to that person. When we do the opposite – when we deem that someone’s story is not worth our time, or when we assume we already know the full scope of someone’s opinion – we strip away their dignity and refuse them humanity. That’s how wars carry on.
Separate the opinion from the person: You might think a certain perspective (e.g. not liking Harry Potter) is idiotic, laughable, utterly ridiculous! Do not extrapolate that to the living, breathing person who holds that opinion. They are not an idiot, laughable, or utterly ridiculous. The disagreement you have is with the opinion, not the person. In disagreement, you are not trying to reconcile or eliminate those differences in opinion, you have an opportunity to connect with another human. When disagreeing parties can look beyond the opinions that they find so strange, they see wonderful, complex and vibrant people whose difference to themselves is precisely what makes them so wonderful. We are human beings, not human doings – so let’s stop defining who people are by what they do.
Friday lunchtime, I sat in the staff room, and talked with a colleague who had voted differently to me. She shared the reasons behind her vote, I shared mine. For every reason I voiced, she could have retaliated with quick witted rhetoric and evidence based arguments – but she didn’t. The votes have been cast; now is a time for listening, and trying to understand. We both acknowledged that we do not know what the future would hold either way, and are both now living in all the uncertainty that a vote either way would bring. Before we cast our votes, we were colleagues; now the votes are in, we are still colleagues.
On a day where I had already cried twice about leaving the EU (yep, that happened), and where I had seriously considered refusing to get out of bed on the grounds that perhaps my bed could stay in the EU, even if the rest of the country left, that conversation with my colleague brought me joy. There is joy to be found in learning to disagree well, and joy to be found in the breath-taking diversity of human beings. There is joy to be found in human connection despite opposing opinions, and perhaps most of all, there is joy to be found in the hope that conversation by conversation, post-Brexit Britain will realise that disagreement is not hatred, and that what unites us is so powerful it could overcome what divides us.
Guest post adapted from The Joy Experiment, where Anna is spending 2016 adding more joy to her life. You can follow the Joy Experiment at https://joy2016blog.wordpress.com/.