Disagreement Can Be Valuable

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A pre-holiday article at FiveThirtyEight caught my eye with the attention-grabbing title, "How To Fight With Your Family At Thanksgiving." The piece offers some thought-provoking advice for navigating the disagreements that are inevitable that time of year. The following heading in particular caught my eye:

Arguments go better in families that value disagreement.
The next couple of paragraphs elaborate:
Image by Suzy Brooks, via Unsplash, license.
Another thing that affects the outcome of holiday arguments on family relationships is whether those families think disagreement is okay. In Johnson's study of Thanksgiving 2016, she writes about two different kinds of families. The first, called "conversation oriented" families, generally allowed for less conformity -- it was normal to talk about controversial issues. They came away from a particularly politically tense year with stronger feelings of closeness than the "conformity oriented" families who generally avoided talking about touchy topics and placed a lot of value on uniformity of thought.

"Families that have a tradition of avoiding politics so they don't get into arguments got into these arguments because 2016 was such a big deal and surprised everyone," Johnson said. Avoidance might work out well most of the time. But if that's your tradition, your family is likely to hit a wall in a tough political climate because you don't have the experience to feel like disagreement is normal.
The above made me think of a couple of things.

First, most people probably aren't selfish enough when they argue. That is, with so many wrong and arbitrary ("not even wrong") positions out there, one can easily be caught off-guard, particularly if the opinion is immoral or outlandish enough that one would not normally discuss it at all.

Don't let that blind you to opportunity: So long as neither side is indulging in the arbitrary, one of the following obtains in any argument: (1) one person is right and the other is wrong, (2) both people are partly right and partly wrong, or (3) both people are wrong. If both people are discussing the matter with a view towards understanding it better for themselves, discussions are great ways to learn: What am I wrong about? How can I better communicate what I am correct about? Are there things I haven't considered before that I should factor in to my opinion or the way I express it?

It is possible to learn these things even from someone who doesn't have these motives, assuming that person is capable of remaining civil. In other words, arguments are a great way to learn, even for someone who does not change his position as a result. The flip side to this is that, it is easy, on reflection to cut someone who disagrees with you some slack: If thinking about your own opinion takes lots of effort, it is the same for the others. In other words, one develops a healthy respect for the independence of others, in addition to understanding an issue better.

I lay much of the blame for this -- the dread arguments inspire in too many -- on our overwhelmingly altruistic culture, which predisposes many people to focused too much on what the other people think, rather than on the value of understanding something for oneself. Consider how many religions hold up various forms of proselytizing as virtuous. This focus on others can only leads to frustration, annoyance, and a sense of futility when one's (hopefully) superior enlightenment fails to gain a single convert. This is simply the wrong goal, and a basically impossible one at that since man has free will. The best arguments on earth fall mostly on unreceptive or unprepared minds.

Second, the remarks on family culture are very interesting,and I almost missed their significance when I decided to comment on the article. Consider the below example of the vice of appeasement, from Ayn Rand's essay, "The Age of Envy:"
An intellectual who was recruiting members for Mensa -- an international society allegedly restricted to intelligent men, which selects members on the dubious basis of I.Q. tests -- was quoted in an interview as follows: "Intelligence is not especially admired by people. Outside Mensa you had to be very careful not to win an argument and lose a friend. Inside Mensa we can be ourselves and that is a great relief." (The New York Times, September 11, 1966.) A friend, therefore, is more important than the truth. What kind of friend? The kind that resents you for being right. [bold added] (The Objectivist, July 1971)
Contrast Rand's allusion to the fact that we can choose our friends, with the fact that we can't choose our relatives. If Uncle Buck can't talk about politics tactfully, you may well decide to sidestep the issue if you otherwise wish to see him enough. (It should be obvious that I am not saying we should tolerate anything from relatives, but I'll say it anyway.)

I mention this because when I read the article, it seemed like it implied that families that "value disagreement" (See Note.) were healthier than those choosing to set politics aside. I'm not sure that I wasn't reading that into the article, but I am sure that that isn't necessarily the case. I can imagine a family that is normally quite comfortable having such discussions, but also having a ground rule to let some topics lie around Uncle Buck -- who might not realize how lucky he is to be invited at all. (This is emphatically not the same as letting him ramble if he gets started.)

So I think whether a family avoids or embraces political discussions can hinge quite a bit on its particular circumstances, and not just on its overall culture.

My take-home? Think in advance about how you might react when some unfamiliar opinion comes up, especially if you're in a family that discourages holiday politics. Think about how to quickly and politely express disagreement, and what kinds of questions you might raise if the conversation goes beyond that point.

-- CAV

Note: Rather than "value disagreement," I might have said, "have a stronger culture of rational discussion." There is nothing inherently good or bad about disagreement per se.

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