Respectful Disagreement: A Forgotten Art that You Need to Remember



Welcome to College! From here on out, some people are going to disagree with you on everything from your basic human rights to the existence of a god or gods above (or below or in any number of alternate realities). People will probably at one point or another call you and your beliefs stupid, ignorant, selfish, overprivileged, underprivileged, arrogant, incompetent, biased, ridiculous, overly misogynistic, overly feministic, racist, silly and / or straight up dumb. But that’s why you came here — to learn. Passing through the milieu of compelling and controversial opinions floating around a large university can be a trial by fire, from which you can emerge more educated about the perspectives of your fellow humans and confident in the legitimacy of your own ideas.

Each person who calls you out on something is giving you a chance to do one of two things, 1) react from an emotional place that hates to be challenged or disagreed with or 2) accept that you are not perfect and take their criticism as an opportunity to see the flaws in yourself. It’s much easier to do the first, because it feels good to stick it to someone, but where does that get anybody?

We talk about large conflicts on this campus, and many of us do more than talk. Divestment from companies supporting certain Israeli actions, questioning the right of political candidates and professors to hold official positions at UCSB, debating the extent to which areas outside the classroom should be governed and protected by Isla Vistans… all these issues and more will continue to spark protest and debate this year.

So now you’ve gotten into a shouting match with your neighbor because he’s in favor of fracking … Have you learned anything new? Gained any new viewpoints on the matter? Perhaps found a way to strengthen your argument? Chances are that, no you have not. What you have done is made a fool of yourself, poorly represented the group for which you argue and alienated a potential friend with whom you could have had an academic discussion to benefit you both.

Respectful disagreement is not easy, but it is arguably the most important thing you will learn here at UCSB. If you want to be a leader in anything in this world, diplomacy is going to be crucial. The reason that politics, international affairs and now, even student affairs are such a mess, is that people feel personally attacked when something they believe is challenged. It’s human nature to retaliate against a perceived challenge, but it’s also human nature to poop anywhere on the ground — yet, somehow, we overcame the second part.

Respectful disagreement does not mean silencing your own intuitions about moral and immoral policy, and it does not mean censoring the sincerity of your personal experiences. What we need as growing, often opposing thinkers is to hear the truth of what it is like to have family members deported, or property taken away, or hard-earned money lost. One of the most important skills people of a rational society need to gain is the ability to entertain and understand an argument without feeling the need to disparage and vilify it. Letting others know you really can appreciate their point of view, but disagree for compelling reasons, will ensure in most cases that you all can remain cordial at least while still being challenged by each other’s ideas.

Realize that your views are not perfect, not refined and definitely full of holes that you would never see unless someone pointed them out to you. Take each “attack” as you would take each correction that someone makes on an essay you ask them to read — use it for what it’s worth and politely reject it if it does not work for you.

You will definitely be party to a wide variety of disagreements here on campus and out in the “real world” and you can either help find a solution by working with those who see differently than you, or you can do what most people do and yell back, twice as loud. Set yourself apart and work with your critics to find solutions instead of win arguments.

Your “enemies” are your best friends, because they will tell you exactly what you need to work on and where your shortcomings are. If it hurts to be criticized, work on that, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

Welcome to college!

Emile Nelson and Suzanne Becker are Opinion Co-Editors.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, August 27th, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students
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