Discrepancies are not negative. The negative is not knowing how to disagree. Attacking the one who thinks differently. Excluding the dissenter. Closing to arguments just because they challenge what we believe in.
Instead, the Socratic dialogue promotes a respectful debate between two people who use convincing arguments that promote reflection and reasoning to reach the most accurate or valid answer possible. Both people have the opportunity to practice the art of disagreeing. Openly.
However, we are neither Socrates nor are we in classical Athens. We live in an increasingly polarized society where people are attacked more than their arguments with the aim of imposing a truth that restricts critical thinking. Thus, it is not surprising that arguments quickly degenerate into insults and personal attacks.
Overidentifying with ideas, believing that we are what we think
It is not unusual for us to find ourselves arguing heatedly with someone over something we are not quite sure of or do not have enough information about. It is likely that later, with a cold mind, we realize that we have taken his words too seriously. We have taken them as a personal attack, as if the mere fact of disagreeing implies that the other has become our most staunch enemy.
Emotions are a great stumbling block to respectfully disagree. When words fly over the air like remote-controlled darts pierce our reptilian brain, even before we are fully aware of their meaning. Then the emotions take over and the reason goes out.
The words that we classify as “dangerous” and that trigger this process of emotional hijacking are those that “attack” our identity. The problem is that when we over-identify with our ideas, anything that goes against them is perceived as a personal attack.
If we believe that we are what we think, when someone disagrees and questions some of our most deeply held beliefs, we perceive it as an attack to our “self”. We are not capable of assuming the necessary psychological distance, so emotions take over and we respond without logic or arguments. Therefore, to master the art of disagreeing we must maintain a certain equidistance from our ideas.
When the discrepancy is perceived as a betrayal
We do not give the same value to all words. Dissension that comes from our innermost circles of trust or from groups with which we feel identified, can be more painful and generate more intense emotional reactions. We do not take as seriously the words of a person who does not know us on social networks as the criticisms of a close friend.
We must start from the fact that opinions, ideas and narratives help us to determine “who is on our side”. They are a kind of markers that tell us more or less reliably who we can trust and who we cannot.
Therefore, although it may be paradoxical, the price to pay for disagreeing may be less when we disagree with people who do not think like us and are not part of our circle of trust or of the groups with which we identify.
What is really difficult is learning to disagree with who is on “our side”, with the group that welcomes us and of which we feel that we are part, the group where we place our affections and in which we trust to support us when things go wrong. Dissent in this group is often perceived as a personal betrayal that is particularly difficult for us to manage.
This was confirmed by a study carried out at Monash University, in which it was appreciated that when we have to disagree with those closest to us, we can experience great cognitive dissonance. In practice, our brain reacts as if the ideas of the other were ours, which generates that internal split that causes anxiety.
The levels of discrepancy, from insult to rebuttal
We are all full of contradictions. We need contact with the others, as well as a certain degree of approval and social validation. We need to feel that we are part of the group. However, we also need to feel unique and different. That is why we feel the need to disagree. We assert ourselves through differences, either literally or symbolically.
In this social dialogue, it is normal for us to oscillate between agreement and disagreement. In fact, the most brilliant and innovative ideas are usually born from dissent, it is an open window towards new ways of seeing and understanding the world. However, we need to learn to disagree with respect and logic, because only in this way does developer change occur.
Essayist Paul Graham determined a series of levels of disagreement that can guide us on the path to respectful dissent, also allowing us to detect people who do not respect us in that exchange of ideas.
• Insults. It is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably the most common. In this case, there is no rationality or argument because the dissent is based on the insult. You don’t even pay attention to the idea, but you go directly to the insults in a rude way, thus breaking any possibility of dialogue.
• Ad hominem fallacy. It is a dissent in which no compelling reasons are provided, but the person is directly attacked for who he is or for his actions, which are completely irrelevant to the case. In practice, instead of refuting the arguments, those who resort to the ad hominen fallacy limit themselves to saying that the other person lacks authority because he or she does not move in respectable circles or has used drugs, for example.
• Response to tone. In this case, is not attacked the argument, but the tone that the other person has used. Instead of indicating the error in the contrary reasoning, the person simply attacks the arrogant, frivolous or angry tone. Therefore, the central idea is not refuted, but the attack is directed to forms.
• Contradiction. At this level of discrepancy, you finally stop attacking the person to focus on the idea under discussion. However, the argument against is limited to presenting an opposite idea with little or no justification. In practice, the person simply says otherwise, but without providing any evidence to support his or her claim.
• Counterargument. It’s the first convincing form of disagreement that actually tries to prove something. The problem is that the counterargument is usually a contradiction rather than an argument in itself since it usually deals with a different matter. For example, given the idea that “Children need toys to develop their skills”, a counterargument will indicate that “The most important thing is the love, attention and care that children receive”. In this case, even if the counterargument is true, it does not refute the primary idea.
• Rebuttal. The most convincing form of disagreement is rebuttal, although it is also the rarest, because it requires more intellectual work. In this case, one starts from the other’s own arguments to explain why he or she is wrong or why his or her thesis does not hold up. It consists of finding the error in an argument and explaining it using data, providing reasons or resorting to evidence.
In any case, to successfully practice the art of disagreeing, it is important that we focus on refuting the central point, avoiding going around so as not to fall into useless and inconsequential discussions. Once we detect the central idea on which the discussion revolves, we must look for solid arguments to refute it.
We must remember that in the social sea in which we swim, it is not always easy to orient ourselves and we are often not fully aware of the currents that push us in one direction or another. Despite this, the art of disagreeing consists of exercising our freedom to disagree by allowing the other to also exercise it.
After all, “disagree” comes from the latin word “discrepāre”, which means to sound differently or to have a different opinion. It does not imply being right or being in possession of the truth, but only presenting a different point of view that can give a different perspective on the complex issues of the world.
Domínguez, J. F. et. Al. (2015) Why Do Some Find it Hard to Disagree? An fMRI Study. Front Hum Neurosci; 9: 718.
Graham, P. (2008) Cómo discrepar. In: paulgraham.es.