An Occupy protester argues with a counter-demonstrator. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Alain de Botton: How to disagree (without starting World War Three)

We might fantasise about universal harmony, but vicious disagreement is not going to go away by itself. We need to learn how to disagree well.

We live in a world saturated with disagreement. People are at odds about pretty much everything, from when to order a taxi or go out to dinner to whether there should be a caliphate; from the kind of orbit the International Space Station should assume or the right way to cook lasagne to whether Hungary is in eastern or central Europe and how long a child should be allowed to play Mine­craft on a Saturday morning.

Though disagreement can be civilised, ­interesting and productive, it is much too frequently a powerful source of misery: we get enraged and bewildered; we are ­appalled at the views of others and feel intensely bothered by them; we feel defeated, hopeless and lonely; we agonise, rehearse the conflict alone in our heads, worry, feel guilty, get upset . . . Disagreement is especially pressing now because of large societal forces that have been building for the past couple of centuries.

 

1. Politics

The developed world is now democratic. We’ve long been moving away from habits of deference and from hierarchies in which most people don’t feel it’s their role to have much of a view about a lot of things.

When everyone can vote it matters a lot what everyone thinks. Having opinions becomes more than a luxury; indeed, it’s a necessity in a well-functioning democracy. One needs to have opinions about everything from who should rule to where the nuclear power stations should be positioned. But although we are encouraged to have opinions, little attention is paid to what we do when – as constantly seems to be the case – we find that these opinions clash with those of our fellow citizens.

 

2. Relationships of equality

To ask any couple what they disagree about is one of the more fascinating and consoling exercises: we realise we are not alone.

At the same time, disagreement in relationships feels more troubling than in the past, because low expectations once made contentions both routine and in line with aspirations. One was less disturbed by disagreements because the idea of a relationship of total agreement, sympathy and mutuality wasn’t on the cards – it is a very recent invention, dating back to (at best) the mid-18th century.

There is also the issue of hierarchy. For most of history, we lived in patriarchies: it was the men who settled disagreements within families. Now there’s a profound (but historically still quite novel) sense of equality, between couples and also with children. We trust that couples should talk through their beliefs, they should know and be interested in, and respect, each other’s minds. No one can be the boss in any particular area. This extends to children: children are taken to be fonts of spontaneous insight and novel perspective. Their opinions deserve to be listened to as well. So concerned are we to ensure that children’s egos are not prematurely crushed, we encourage them to have opinions about all aspects of life. It can, as a result, be extremely hard to come to a decision about anything, including what to have for dinner.

The democratic cacophony and chaos within the family mirror those in the political world beyond. No longer able to govern hierarchically, we are not yet able to reach understanding and manage disagreement. This is the moment we are at.

 

3. Technology

Technology has made disagreement more vivid. We are very readily brought into contact with other people’s abrasive attitudes – which, until recently, would never have been available for us to encounter.

If you follow a BBC report on a speech given by the leader of the opposition (for instance) you are alerted to the fact that someone by the name of @Cockshield considers him to be an “ugly socialist maggot!” and you get exposure to the opinion of commenters saying such things as: “He does not care about Britain, he cares about his career and making money, he’s in it for four or five years if he wins and after that he gets a nice big pay cheque and an early retirement and a luxury life that is his real goal.”

In the past, the capacity to express disagreement was curtailed by a fear of laying oneself open to retaliation from the person one disagreed with. If one called someone else a “thieving, lying worthless piece of shit”, one would expect to be condemned by the community and possibly challenged to a duel. Now, one can throw out sentences like this on social media at zero cost and in total anonymity.

In addition, there is a feeling that being verbally abused online isn’t such a problem. One mustn’t be thin-skinned; one should be able to put up with the nasty comments of others. While our societies are very alive to certain forms of racism and misogyny, they are still remarkably sanguine about the ordinary forms of abuse that are traded on social media every minute.

We do not, as a society, take “being offended” very seriously – and therefore offence is rife.

Technology has also generated stronger opinions; it has emboldened people whose opinions might previously have been hedged by a doubt about whether anyone else agreed, by introducing them to people who agree with them and strengthen their convictions. Someone with a passing, slightly embarrassed sense that Pluto should be recategorised as a planet can now join multiple websites full of people who think of little else. The same applies to politics, pornography, religion and so on. If you are a Marxist but also a Christian fundamentalist, you can inhabit a corner of the online universe in which it is taken for granted that this is the only intelligent way to see the world. So, thanks to technology, we are exposed to the uninhibited disagreements of other people – and also the emboldening reassurance of fellow tribal devotees. In short, technology polarises and inflames.

 

****

Still, rather than despair, we must accept that disagreement will be constant and ubiquitous. We might fantasise about universal harmony, about reason prevailing spontaneously and about everyone being sweetly tolerant. But vicious disagreement is not going to go away by itself.

We need to learn how to disagree well, how to navigate through a life in which we will inevitably come into conflict with many people over expectations, demands, hopes, convictions, priorities and attitudes. We need to deal well with disagreement so we can cope better in our own lives and make our own contributions (however modest) to a saner society.

 

Helpful moves

Don’t import energy from elsewhere into your disagreements.

Many of our disagreements are broadly about intellectual matters: the future of the euro, immigration, debt, censorship, education . . . You might find yourself taking a passionate stand on the Peruvian economy, the importance of George Orwell, whether the Chinese reached America in the 15th century, the status of women in 18th-century France . . . (everyone’s list is unique). These are not inherently unworthy topics – but the intensity that gets invested in them can be disproportionate to what is really at stake. In cooler moments you might wonder why you get so worked up about them.

It is here we encounter the phenomenon of Energy Imported from Elsewhere: in this dynamic, the fuel for a disagreement is not coming purely from the topic under debate. The intensity comes from things going on elsewhere in your life. At the time we don’t realise that this is what is going on – which makes it very hard to calm a disagreement.

Energy gets imported in various ways. Sometimes we are disagreeing with people who are dead or gone. The present disagreement is a proxy for an issue from the past.

You could never get your father to see the merits of your career choice, so you try to convince him by getting worked up with the person sitting next to you at dinner.

There was an acquaintance at college whose political ideas irritated you; you are always trying to prove him wrong by lecturing strangers at drinks parties.

Your ex-partner was always going on at you for being selfish; now you try to win the argument against her by mocking “bleeding hearts” to anyone who will listen.

Sometimes frustrated sexual desire gets channelled into disagreement. There’s someone you are attracted to (though you might be reluctant to admit it); you find her exciting – but she doesn’t seem much interested in you. Disagreement offers a way of making contact; you contradict her, you make her acknowledge the importance of a certain fact; you rather forcibly try to dislodge one of her pet theories. The energy isn’t coming just from the overt topic: it’s borrowed from thwarted desire.

In theory, we are not meant to like strong disagreement – situations in which we tell ourselves that the other person is very, very wrong in their opinion.

But there’s a dark truth: instead of feeling uncomfortable, sometimes we even like it very much. Creating a more civilised world may mean forgoing some of the pleasures of violent disagreement.

Alain de Botton is the author of “Religion for Atheists” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.