It’s become fashionable in this country to take the old-school approach to disagreement: I believe x, and if you do not, you are wrong and must be corrected. The facts at issue can only be interpreted one way, and failure to interpret them the way we do means our adversary is at best stupid, at worst a liar.
There are certainly issues for which this is the case. One who disputes the Law of Gravity, or the Laws of Motion, or the Atomic Theory of matter, had better come to the table with some ironclad science or come prepared to be laughed out of the room.
But most issues are hardly so clearly defined. Two intelligent people, approaching the same problem with the best of intentions, may come to radically different solutions. And both of them may work.
We’ve lost sight of this idea that not every disagreement has to be an issue of right and wrong. Any time two people disagree, there are four possibilities:
- Person A is right and Person B is wrong;
- Person A is wrong and Person B is right;
- Both people are right;
- Both people are wrong.
We all approach our disagreements from the perspective of Person A, and the only possibility most of us consider is the first. Many of us cling to this perspective regardless of the facts presented, regardless of the other person’s perspective or level of openness or willingness to discuss points of detail, because some time in our lives we’ve learned that to change our position, to back down at all, is a sign of weakness. In extreme cases, we cling to demonstrably false conclusions in order to avoid appearing weak.
That’s a form of cowardice. Rather than doing the hard work of listening, accepting facts we weren’t previously aware of, maintaining what we call an open mind—in short, allowing the possibility that our position might not be the sole right one—we take the easier path of refusing to admit we could be wrong.
It’s more courageous by far, because it’s harder, to approach our disagreements determined to learn, rather than teach; to agree, rather than persuade; to let our partner help us become better, smarter, wiser, and to do the same for him or her. This requires us to listen. It requires us to really think about what he or she has said. It requires us to back our own arguments with facts he or she will recognize as such, and expect as much in return.
That way means we come away from each discussion with a broader perspective, which in the end makes us all better able to work together as a species. The opposite way, the old-school way, gets us more of what we’ve always had: exclusion, fractured societies, otherness, war.
Must we all agree on everything? No. But we must open ourselves to the possibility that others might be right if we wish to keep moving forward.