When was the last time you walked away from a disagreement (especially a political one) feeling good about yourself? If you are anything like me, the answer might pre-date your awkward middle school years or maybe even your first words. Maybe that’s just the way disputation happens—arguing isn’t supposed to make you feel good, is it? Well, the jury is still out on that one, but one thing is for sure—disagreement is designed to be constructive, not destructive. So instead of me arguing on either side of the political divide, let’s talk about the thing we must talk about before we can cause any waves worthy of creating meaningful change: the all-important art of disagreement.
It goes without saying that many of us do not disagree very well nowadays. Social media disputes have become debates on steroids between people who feel empowered to say whatever they want from behind their keyboard. Before I continue, I am not discouraging anyone from saying what they believe at any time they see fit. All I’m saying is that I’d rather take a sharp pencil to the eyeball than scroll through the comments on a politically charged Facebook post. Even in person, when we cannot manage to escape difficult conversations, we usually end up joining in (willingly or not) on a nationwide symphony swelling louder and louder with witty language and hurtful jabs until our lack of progress sends us back to our trenches for the night. We are pre-programmed for this sort of total-war polarization. We are programmed to believe in two sides. Programmed to choose one of two parties. We are pretty much the left-Twix right-Twix commercials minus the self-aware satire. We aren’t in on the joke. We give into the he said she said of political argumentation, and many of us are quick to assume that characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, or even ethnicity are more polar than they are spectral. If you aren’t with me, you’re with them.
Some of you are probably rolling your eyes, screaming through this article and into my soul that this is not always the case. You are right. But, even when we begin to see that our arguments are not so two-sided, somehow oversimplification always drags us back to those trenches we are so accustomed to. I saw, for example, more than a few articles the day after the recent State of the Union Address claiming that there was not one Democrat courageously patriotic enough to rise to their feet even for the powerful stories of veterans who have given everything for our freedom to disagree. For anyone who bothered to watch the Address, you know this is untrue. Most of the room could be seen standing to applaud the valor of our service members. If you are a staunch conservative, however, perhaps you read one of these articles the next day and decided to take advantage of the excuse to override your memory and go back to seeing Democrats as the bloodsucking vampires Hannity tells you they are. If you are, on the other hand, aligned with us vampires, then maybe you heard Trump return to his routine of criminalizing immigrants and decided to (perhaps rightfully so) clamp your ears shut and wait patiently for some young guy named Kennedy with a superb jawline and a sweet-sounding message to come in and steal the show.
I know what you’re thinking now—here is yet another article building up to some grand declaration about how we need to listen to each other and stop disagreeing so much (or at least so loudly). You’re thinking this guy with no influence whatsoever is now going to tell me that hugging a neo-nazi would do more than punching one or that I should “try to understand” the position of those threatening to tear immigrant families apart. No. My only intention is to tell you that disagreement, in its purest form, is a beautiful thing. As Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic put it in a 2017 article on disagreement, “Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises.” When the goal of our arguments is discrediting individuals, then we confine ourselves to being hecklers in the stands. It is only when we embrace a much-needed paradigm shift and focus our arguments on dismantling opposing ideas that we become real players in our democracy. Do not even think about fighting less about politics. I’m telling you to fight more, but, to borrow again from Friedersdorf’s article. I’m also telling you to fight fair. Tear down ideas, not the people who espouse them. Disagreement is a beautiful thing. It is what allows us our individuality, and its beauty is what draws us all to be rebels in some way. I’m not here to tell you to stop shouting and start listening, I’m here to tell you to stop shouting about the wrong things. Focus on what matters, and start boldly telling (yelling if you must) your truth.