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Kindling A Fire: Is Respectful Disagreement Still Possible?

Kindling A Fire: Is Respectful Disagreement Still Possible?

November brings Election Day and with it comes an important opportunity to teach one of Country Day’s five character virtues: respect. Perhaps the juxtaposition of politics with respect sounds misplaced or even oxymoronic.

But as our Head of Lower School Mark Morawski tells our younger learners, demonstrating respect is most important when it is most difficult. After all, it is easy to show respect when everyone is in agreement. The true measure of character is whether you can respectfully disagree when everyone’s emotions are high and values differ.

Now, I find some politicians are less amenable to modeling respectful discourse for fear it belies their ideologies. Nevertheless, in the spirit of optimism, here are a few thoughts I have shared with our students on how to respectfully disagree amidst a culture that too often lacks civil discourse:

  1. Be committed to finding the best answer rather than simply confirming a prior belief. Keep your identity separate from your opinion and commit only to searching for truth (not a particular position). Connecting an opinion too closely to your identity can make changing your mind feel like an act of self-destruction – regardless of the evidence.
  2. Seek to understand your interlocutor instead of seeking to win a debate. This is not merely a generous way to approach disagreement; remember you are trying to persuade someone who disagrees with you and likely has different values. Meet them where they are, not where you are. Because you are already persuaded by your own argument, start by identifying why the other side is not by asking good questions and being an active listener. And be intellectually charitable: take on the strongest version of your colleague’s argument, not an artificially weakened straw man.
  3. Begin with what you have in common with your opponent. Establish areas of agreement to build trust and narrow the issues in dispute. Concede minor, incontrovertible issues to incentivize future concessions from your opponent. And remember, you may find your opponent is actually your ally. Ronald Reagan is credited with the wisdom that “My eighty-percent friend is not my twenty-percent enemy.”
  4. Disagree on the facts of the issue, not the identity of the other person. People can change their minds about facts, data, and logic. But few debaters will be eager to compromise their core identities or respond reasonably to a personal attack. Emotion, identity, and labels are the fastest ways to derail a discussion.
  5. Finally, to persuade others, it helps to be persuadable yourself. It will make you a more reasonable debater, encourage the search for compromise, and promote respectful disagreement. It’s also the right thing to do for someone committed to finding the truth. As the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes is reported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

In suggesting this advice, I realize I am hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to respectful disagreement. I am far from perfect. For example, don’t expect me to be too respectful when debating the merits of the Bengals vs. Steelers.

But in the end, respectful disagreement is a disposition more than a set of tactics. And while our elected leaders do not always demonstrate this disposition, we can all model the change we want to see in our culture – students and adults alike.

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the November 2022 edition of the publication.