Since when has it become ok to disagree so violently and impudently? Was it always like this or was there a time when we could listen a little more openly, quietly, thoughtfully? It is an important skill to do so, even if we still end up in the same place of respectful disagreement. Research has shown that most of us prefer to consume news stories that we agree with; walking a comfortable path to buttress our position, so we buy newspapers or go to online sites that reinforce what we already think. What the research wasn’t able to conclude was whether consuming lots of news from a wider range of sources to reflect different opinions affects or changes people’s views, or simply hardens original beliefs. But surely it is worth a try, reading something that presents a different viewpoint, listening more attentively to the opposing side of the debate.
In the last few years we have begun to hear about a new phenomenon of, ‘no-platforming’ – largely in the context of universities; institutions that are supposed to be full of open-minded, inquisitive, fact-gathering, curious minds. The last sort of place, one would think, where Germaine Greer would be disinvited to give a lecture entitled, ‘Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. Seems innocuous enough, surely, but in the context of some views she had expressed about trans women in the run up to her speaking engagement, many students in Cardiff thought it best she not come at all. No-platforming is used for clear ethical reasons – the desire by students (or others) to protect us from offensive ideas, hate speech and intimidation – but the water is breaking its banks when it is used to ban the voicing of an opinion that is distasteful, contrary to yours.
It is hard; it is hard to disagree respectfully, to hold your passion, to explain your position on something you hold dear, to listen to why someone else thinks so differently. To really listen – not to just let them speak while you gather your ammunition, working out how you are going to come back at them and take out all of their considered beliefs like lined up bottles at a shooting range. Once upon a time we may have held back for fear of offending anyone, now it seems that one is quick to adopt the indignant position of ‘I am offended!’, fighting it off in a downward spiral of shovelling further offence back into the face of the offender. One common example might be finding out that someone has voted for (or against) Brexit, positions on which are held with greater fervour than ever after the event. I know friendships that have fractured over it, shocking insults hurled.
There are always going to be people who think differently from you, and thank goodness for it. Begging to differ in a firmly polite way must be the way forward. We’re all here for such a short time and it is easy to get into the habit of digging deep trenches and burrowing into our opposing ideas, firing mortars from one side to another, long after we have forgotten why we lifted the shovel in the first place. When we’re six feet under and pushing up daisies, those who are left behind might wonder what all the disagreement was about anyway.
‘Same Difference’, by Fred Johnston
“You need to know the sound of your own voice.
The shape words take has to settle and fit,
too awkward on another man’s tongue,
as his on yours. You force a thing
It wears at the edges, slips through meaning.
You stand in a graveyard where Gael and Planter
Meet, their fought-over acre consumed them at last.
Listen all you like, you’ll not hear
one word of argument in all the scraggled grass.
They speak the same language now, but out of hearing.”