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.
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.
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.
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)