How to disagree with people

disagreePeople on Facebook are beastly to each other. It’s gotten worse since Ferguson, Charleston, and the recent Supreme Court decisions. I’m sick of it. I’d like to propose a way to fix it.

I fiercely criticize things on this blog and I will not stop. But starting now, I vow to criticize writings and ideas, not people, and to listen to those who disagree. It starts with this statement:

People who disagree with you are still human beings, they still reason, they still care about things, and they deserve your respect.

Case in point: as is obvious by now, I am in favor of gay marriage, because I think it is right and because the gay people I care about deserve to be able to be marry each other. The Supreme Court decision made my heart soar.

But every decision or event like this leaves a group of people feeling hurt. I will not demonize the opposition, because I share a country and a world with them. I am going to listen them and learn where they are coming from.

This is not what I see on Facebook. I see people doing victory laps. I see people calling those with opposing viewpoints stupid. I see people writing off every counterargument with a sneer. This is the equivalent of a Red Sox fan shouting “Yankees suck!” You know what? They don’t suck. Their fans are actually people who feel as strongly as you. You better to learn to share the stadium, especially if the alternative is getting into a fistfight.

Here’s a great post from a church leader that sums up how I feel (and I am not at all religious). The question of how we can build on diverse opinions is crucial.

Here’s how I feel about people who disagree with me: I think they are wrong. I want to reclaim that word “wrong.” Wrong means I believe they have made the wrong choice. It does not mean they are stupid, or mean-spirited, or immoral.

The families in Charleston forgiving the shooter have inspired me.

Here are some principles I will try to live by as I wade into controversies:

  1. I will criticize words and content.
  2. I will criticize actions.
  3. I will not criticize (or characterize) people.
  4. I will make room for and amplify viewpoints other than my own, so we can have a principled discussion and learn something.
  5. I will search for higher truths that will inspire all of us, including those who disagree with me.
  6. I will do all these things, even when the people I disagree with do not.

If you are married, you may have learned as I have that you cannot “win” an argument. You may get your way, but you won’t be happy for long unless you work on the relationship at the same time as the argument. Our nation is like a marriage, only much bigger, and I do not want to get a divorce from the people who disagree with me.

Hating is worse than whatever “stupid” opinion the other guy has. Stop hating people you disagree with. Find common ground with them. Have a little compassion, because you might just lose the next one. When people lose a decision — like the gay marriage opponents just did — they’re going to say some impassioned things, some of which will be stupid. Fine. Let’s figure out why so we can all find a way to move on.

Photo: Webb Chappell, with the Facebook rainbow treatment.

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  1. The razor sharp character assassination, invective and drubbing is terrifying. The focus on individuals, rather than ideas is causing great harm. And compounding this is the “mob mentality” developing because we think we are in alignment with the vast majority of our social networks.

    Instead, we could be thinking for ourselves. We need to respect the office of the Presidency and other elected officials, even when we disagree. We need to respect each other especially when we hold different views.

    Hatred always leads to destruction. We need exactly the opposite. Have you exercised your right to say, “I have a different point of view, but please tell me more about your ideas.”? Name calling shuts down the conversation and when we don’t converse ideas percolate in isolation and some later result in real harm.

  2. Hi there,
    I’ve only been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now and have enjoyed it. Either I’ve become inured to it or I haven’t seen evidence of you criticizing people not ideas, but I haven’t. Thus, your post above makes me want to go back and reread, if only to see which might be true.

    When I moderated a local firearms Internet board, I often had to deal with “passionate” members (meaning they were always right). I quickly learned to take the fight to the idea, not the person. I noticed that after adopting this strategy, these angry folks didn’t know how to deal with me. Yelling and complaining didn’t elicit the visceral reaction I believed they sought and they couldn’t argue based on the merit of their position. Arguments sort of disappeared if I got involved with them.

    There are people with whom I strongly disagree on certain topics, and we have wonderful arguments about them (in the classic sense of ‘debate’). They know that if they post something controversial, I’m not going to call them names but will present my side of the debate. We never settle anything about these topics…I know I won’t change their minds, and vice versa. But we get a nice conversation, and I learn how to better debate my side of the topic?

    (Typed on an iPhone…please forgive spelling and grammar errors)

  3. Josh, it’s a fine line to tread and I applaud you for making the effort. One of my favorite ways to defuse the tension in such discussions is to say, with an ironic grin on my face, “well, if you were right, I’d agree with you!” My way of saying, “I think you’re wrong but let’s stay friends.”

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. The minute we divide into “us” and “them” and operate from that mob mentality, we’re failing. No useful communication can happen when we’re screaming across a big divide.

  5. wonderful post josh… I’m reminded of the EE Cummings quote: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight- and never stop fighting.” To fight that fight with the ideas and not the people – even when those people are us- can be one of the most challenging things we do… Thanks for making me think on a Monday night…

  6. I really appreciate this post. It bothers me that we (broadly) have gotten to a point that we can’t simply disagree and move on–that we have to demonize the other “side” and we’re only willing to listen to arguments that bolster our previously-held beliefs. Again, thanks for this post.

  7. I think this is a huge problem online so thank you for addressing it. I think disagreement is critical to progress and I don’t shy away from it. In fact, I like to argue. However, HOW one argues, to your point, determines whether it is constructive or destructive to trust and relationships.

    What I find, observing dialog on social networks is people really don’t know how – even when they are trying to disagree with the point and not the person. And people don’t know how to accept disagreements – getting defensive too quickly rather than being curious.

    I wrote a post a while back called The Language of Engagement to help people understand, more explicitly, the words to use and the words to avoid if they want to have productive conversations. The interesting thing to me is that some of the language needed for good conversations is completely opposite to a lot of the advice we’ve been given (i.e. be direct, don’t say ‘I think, from my point of view because it makes you sound indecisive. Or the advice to use we instead of I). Here’s the post:

    1. I read your post and I think it’s very valuable. I don’t agree with everything you said in it, though 😉

      I am going to follow up with more on this topic and I will definitely be referencing your ideas, Rachel.