The Beauty of Disagreement

Food for Thought

It’s rare to find someone who will debate for an hour, disagree with everything you say, and then part with, “I like you.” However, agreement is not the key ingredient for a lasting relationship or peace; it’s how we handle disagreements.

I tend to befriend people who know how to disagree. Disagreeing well is more of an art than a science. The challenge lies in how to avoid attaching our opinions to our identity. Just as we associate certain brands with our identities, we often let our opinions define us, which makes arguments positional. We no longer sit on the same side of the table to evaluate our opinions.

A positional argument is existential. It involves evaluating not only opinions but also the people holding them, including oneself, at a personal level. Yet, an opinion is merely the culmination of a long personal history. Different people arrive at their views from different places and for different reasons. It’s not possible to know everyone’s stories.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon debating. The goal isn’t to deliver a final judgment but to progressively understand each other better. We have an innate drive to judge, which helps us eliminate uncertainties and reduce anxiety, even at the cost of severing relationships forever.

Wars are waged when disagreements can’t be resolved, and this dynamic can also play out on a personal level when we stop respecting others as fellow humans. Once a debate turns existential, there’s no turning back; it will escalate and inflict increasingly deeper wounds on history.

Joseph Campbell once shared this story: A Japanese samurai was duty-bound to avenge his overlord’s murder. He found and cornered the perpetrator, who, in a moment of terror, spat in the samurai’s face. The samurai sheathed his sword and walked away. Why? Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man, it would have been a personal act, another kind of act, which was not what he had come to do.

When we politically disagree with someone, we should ask ourselves the same question: What is the objective? Is it to achieve a better mutual understanding or to vindicate our opinions? The latter leads only to endless wars.