An article I read in the papers this weekend set me off on a Sunday trail which led to some fun reading, and along the way, managed to join up the last fortnight of assemblies in rather a wonderful way. Here is some of it:

‘Rarely has public debate felt as adversarial as it does today. Express a nuanced opinion online and all too often you won’t be engaging in good-faith discussion, you’ll be abused, “called out” and “cancelled”. Have we forgotten how to simply disagree?

The new provost of University College London, Dr Michael Spence — an Australian Anglican minister and an expert in intellectual property law — said this month that we had reached the point where universities need to start teaching their students how to discuss controversial topics without shouting each other down.

“Practising the norms of disagreeing well, not making an enemy of other people, trying to work out where there is common ground — these are core intellectual skills,” he said.’

Disagreement isn’t just natural; it is enjoyable and done well, it can be a valuable thing. John Nerst, a Swedish blogger, has been asking himself for several years why we are so bad at disagreement, and he has become so fascinated by the concept of disagreeing well that he feels it deserves its own field of research. He has even coined a term for it: Erisology. 

He writes:

“Erisology is the study of disagreement, specifically the study of unsuccessful disagreement. An unsuccessful disagreement is an exchange where people are no closer in understanding at the end than they were at the beginning, meaning the exchange has been mostly about talking past each other and/or hurling insults. A really unsuccessful one is where people actually push each other apart, and this seems disturbingly common.”

It is an important area for study, because as Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said last week: Disagreement is a fundamental part of debate and has been key to advancing knowledge and gaining different perspectives on everything from ethics and history to genetics and theoretical physics.”

So why have we become so bad at disagreement? One reason put forward is that the internet allows for a kind of ‘hit and run’ culture: arguing in a few words or images on Twitter or Instagram hardly allows for a proper and emotive-free investigation into the rights and wrongs of an issue. 

Nobody is listening to arguments in such an exchange – only pronouncing opinions, and sometimes very aggressively. 

They are, as Nerst would have it, talking past each other rather than engaging. Another reason given is that the rise of the internet has coincided with the demise of accepted rules of living. Erisology was picked as a name for this study because it harped back to ancient times. Eris was the goddess of strife. If you read the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans fought each other to the death; but at least they did so with a shared morality. The philosopher John Armstrong surmised that “The Greeks and Trojans are clearly at odds, but they don’t hate one another; they think something like: ‘My clan loyalties lead me to be attacking your city and your clan loyalties lead you to be defending it; we both operate from the same underlying values.’”

So, how does one ‘disagree well’? Well, there are techniques, and there are values. The most prominent technique seems to be something called decoupling. 

Nerst describes decoupling as simply the idea of removing extraneous context from a given claim and debating that claim on its own, rather than debating the fog of associations, ideologies, and potentials swirling around it.

Let’s take Brexit, for example, which split families down the middle. If you are arguing for the notion that Brexit will be good for the country, there will be those who automatically leap to the argument that all Brexiteers are by definition racist. This leads to bad disagreement because there has been no attempt to argue the actual case in front of you, i.e. that Brexit will be good for the country. 

In order to have a better disagreement, one needs to stick to the pros and cons of the initial claim – and seek to learn to understand both sides. This becomes progress.

Alternatively, disagreeing well just relies upon the basic values of humility and respect for the opinions of others. It is not so good because you can just say ‘I respect your point of view’ without actually listening to it, grappling with it and reaching a better understanding of one other, but it does at least allow for freedom of speech and thought.  

Anyway, if you are going to UCL, watch out for this concept. The new provost has arrived from the University of Sydney, where he used to work, and where simply introducing the concept of ‘disagreeing well’ was enough to make an impact. Apparently, ‘would you call that disagreeing well?’ became a common joke on the Sydney University campus. So perhaps you can expect more of the same as he takes the helm in London.

Finally, the reason this article got me reading further is because of the last two weeks of assemblies here. Two weeks ago, we heralded our public speaking kings of the National ESU competition, doing exactly what Dr Spence would have wanted of them. Then, last week, I spoke a bit about inclusion, and ensuring that we do not, by our language, exclude or show disrespect to those of different gender, race, religion, political views and so on. Now, your generation has been brilliant so far in challenging former generations and even ancestors and moving towards a more tolerant and accepting society. But interestingly, the cancel culture at universities puts at risk the continuing search for a better world. There was a lovely comment at the bottom of one of the articles I read on this matter; it simply said this: “my daughter asked me what remaining prejudice her generation would be marked for. I told her it would be the inability to listen and understand why people might have opposing views.” Listening, questioning with an open mind, grappling with the opposing arguments and ultimately, if necessary, disagreeing well are all vital for the growth of humanity; so, do your best to do so.

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