I got my first piece of hate mail this week. It was a response to a news piece about a controversial energy infrastructure project that has dominated the news in western Canada. The letter was vitriolic and personal, as one might expect. But it ultimately left me feeling disappointed.
You see, rather than responding defensively or simply getting angry, I had the presence of mind to read the letter with a spirit of curiosity. What motivated the writer? What did they know that I did not? Might they be right? Yet I was disappointed because the writer was so dedicated to attacking me as a person, they forgot to share their point of view! I read it twice, carefully, before giving up and deleting it.
It’s a sad sign of the times if we can’t disagree productively.
In my second year of college, I took an introductory course offered by the philosophy department on critical thinking. It was an eye opener for me as I learned to think about the biases of writers whose work I was studying, and to look for the facts beneath the opinions and the rhetoric of speakers—including business, social, and political leaders.
I wrote a paper that same year, arguing that critical thinking should be taught in elementary and high schools, so that people could consume media with more care and diligence. I won a small scholarship for that essay, but I was more excited to have found my academic calling. I quickly resolved to focus my studies and graduated with a double major in Political Science and Philosophy. (My bucket list includes the hope to study for a graduate degree in philosophy at Oxford, but that’s a story for another post.)
Here we are, some 20 years later, and I found myself reading a hateful letter that served no purpose but to vent the spleen of its writer. What a shame….
In the digital era, as time continues to accelerate and the future hurtles toward us, it’s all too easy to give way to our baser instincts. Too often, we communicate in sound bites—on social media, where debating seems futile; on many news broadcasts, which are surely more accurately described as entertainment; and even in Parliament, where elected representatives dodge issues, answering questions that weren’t asked, and belittling their colleagues.
How do we take personal responsibility to disagree productively?
Failing to leave space for the possibility that we’re wrong is the height of arrogance.
First, it’s high time we just gave ourselves and one another permission to disagree. In the hectic pace of modern life, it’s easy to entrench in our opinions, holding them ever more strongly. Failing to leave space for the possibility that we’re wrong is the height of arrogance. This doesn’t mean there aren’t facts or objective truths. Science and evidence are foundational, but there is always plenty of space for mature, rational debate about what plans we should make and actions we should take in light of the facts.
Second, we must strive to listen generously. Seek first to understand: What is the truth in the opinion of another? What in their experience has led them to their point of view? Understanding their reasoning and perspective can lead to only three outcomes: You may learn anew that you were right, deepening your convictions. You may learn that you were wrong, advancing your learning. Or you may learn that both of you were wrong, revealing a new and deeper understanding. In short, you can’t lose.
Third, we must debate ideas, not the people who hold them. Perhaps this week’s letter writer assumed I was ignorant of some facts; perhaps they assumed they knew better. How much more productive might their letter have been if they had elected to inform, rather than berate? Illuminate, rather than vilify?
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” — Oscar Wilde
The personal (or ad hominem) attack is the first, worst debasement of constructive dialogue. It is just one of hundreds of logical fallacies. ‘Arguments from authority’ are all too common in our society today. Just because one occupies a senior role or high office does not mean one’s opinion outweighs the truth. Too often as well, we hear the ‘false dilemma,’ the oversimplification of an argument to just two alternatives, when in reality, the issues that really matter are far more complex and nuanced.
To my delight, I also received two letters this week from people who wrote from a more mature point of view. They sought first to understand my opinion; they seemed genuinely open to learning and to the potential that their own position might evolve; and they didn’t attack me, but instead chose to share some facts and their own interpretations, engaging on ideas. These became wonderful dialogues that deepened the trust and respect I have for the two people who reached out.
So where might you begin, next time you feel yourself being pulled into a debate? Perhaps start with this simple, and disarming question: “I think I disagree with you. Can you share some more about why you believe what you do?”
What productive conversation might you begin?…
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. His background in philosophy and critical thought underpins Junxion’s storytelling and brand strategy services. Invite him into a juicy, generative conversation about an issue of social importance. It’s one of his favourite things in the world.