The concept of ’disagreeing well’ may sound odd to some people, especially to those who are removed from academic settings. I too was a stranger to the concept until I attended UCL’s ’Disagreeing Well’ debate on June 28th. It was an event with a simple title, and a simple purpose: to teach staff and students how to successfully disagree and to highlight why it is such an important skill for all of us at UCL to learn. This was a purpose I believe the event fulfilled. I had expected to come away from this talk wanting to convince all students that it was something worth attending. I did not anticipate that I wanted to do more than this. I found myself wanting to convince my parents and their friends, my friends from other universities, and even their parents, to attend. This is because the debate made it clear that the issue of conflict and civility and the ability to disagree well is applicable not just to our UCL community, but to our society at large.
The four panellists were expertly chosen and consisted of UCL President and Provost Dr. Michael Spence, Professor of Law at UCL Prince Saprai, our Student’s Union Equity and Inclusion Officer Seyi Osi and Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford Teresa Bejan. The variety of backgrounds and positions of the speakers already made for an interesting debate, but it was each speaker’s ability to execute their points while also giving enough space for their peers to outline theirs, that made the debate itself an excellent exemplar of how to truly disagree well. The inclusion too of UCL Alumna and international mediator Mia Forbes-Pirie as chair was key to the success of this demonstration of reasoned debate.
Teresa Bejan spoke from a philosophical standpoint, claiming that to disagree well we must first acknowledge the inherent ’disagreeableness’ of disagreement and then find a way to move beyond this. Prince Saprai chose to speak on the importance of reasoned debate in universities and how cultivating this skill allows students to lead a ’good life’ when so much of the focus of their time at university is on getting a ’good job’. What I think was most interesting, and important, about his points was that he highlighted how essential this skill is to all areas of society, not just university life. Seyi Osi maintained that the key to disagreeing well was to create safe and inclusive spaces where all voices can be heard. Meanwhile, President and Provost Dr Michael Spence, asserted that we must be open to all types of disagreements, even those we are most passionate about; to get to a place where a constructive disagreement can occur. He focused on the importance of empathy and mutual respect in a debate, claiming that his ’duty’ was to truly ’understand what the other person is saying’. For him, acknowledging another’s ’dignity’ as a person is the secret to disagreeing well.
Despite an unexpected protest that interrupted the beginning of the talk, the panellists continued to chat calmly. This was thanks to Mia Forbes-Pirie who diffused the tension well and created an atmosphere where the speakers felt comfortable to deliver an interesting and constructive talk. Although surprising, even the protest itself was beneficial as it set a more serious tone to the debate. Both the speakers and the audience were even more aware of how poignant the topic of ’disagreeing well’ really was. We had all just seen it play out in front of us, impossible to ignore. Although slightly awkward, it was this unexpected start that pushed the conversation in the direction it needed to go. The protest itself was also a timely example of an issue that could benefit from disagreeing well. It showed me exactly how important this skill really is - it has the power to change people’s lives for the better.
My main revelation when hearing the panellists was that disagreements should not be feared or deemed negative. If conducted correctly debate can be beneficial to all parties involved and can lead to great things. To disagree well is essential if we are to solve any issues, and if we are to avoid violence or unreasonable conflict during the process. I found it particularly striking that the talk forced me to reflect upon my own approaches to disagreements, both in my academic and personal life. I realised that all of us, in UCL but also in our wider community, must strive to think a little deeper on how we behave during confrontation if we are to better ourselves and our society. To commit to disagreeing well is not only a form of mutual respect, as Dr Michael Spence and Prince Saprai claim, but it is also an act of respect to ourselves.
I left the talk with a genuine understanding of the need to ’disagree well’ both in our society and institutions, and with a sense of empowerment and pride. I was reminded that I am attending a university that cares about its community and the wider society, and one that takes accountability. The very fact that this event was held, and with such esteemed speakers, is a testament to the community here at UCL. It constantly wants to grow and change in the right direction, vying to create an environment within which its students and staff not only feel safe, but proud. By holding events like this one, UCL proves that it is an institution that is focused on, in Saprai’s words, ’building and sustaining environments where reasoned dialogue can flourish’. It is committed to bettering not only its own community, but also that of our city and society. And so, if you are someone who carries these same values, I encourage you to attend a disagreeing well event in the future - you will not regret it.
This event was part of UCL’s new Disagreeing Well campaign, launching Autumn 2023. To stay up to date on future Disagreeing Well activities and events and be the first to hear register your interest here.
Biographies of Each SpeakerPresident & Provost Dr Michael Spence
Dr Michael Spence AC joined UCL as President & Provost in January 2021, joining the university from the University of Sydney where he was Vice-Chancellor from 2008 to 2020. Since arriving, he has led a year-long university-wide consultation to develop the UCL Strategic Plan 2022-27, which sets out UCL’s priorities and ambitions for the next five years in order to strengthen the excellence of UCL’s education, research and innovation, underpinned by a robust financial strategy and improvement of the processes and services that underpin academic excellence.
Find out more about the Provost here.
American political theorist and author. Teresa is a professor of political theory in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College. Author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration
Find out more about Teresa Bejan.
Prince Saprai is an Associate Professor at UCL’s Faculty of Laws. Prince’s main research interest is in the philosophy of contract law. He has written extensively on philosophical puzzles relating to a variety of doctrines in the field. Prince also works on broader questions about transnational private law, the ethics of markets, and the regulation of new technologies.
Find out more about Prince Saprai.
Equity & Inclusion Officer, UCL Student Union. Seyi leads on equity and inclusion work across the Union to ensure that UCL is a truly inclusive environment for all students, working closely with and supporting Student Union UCL’s Liberation Network Officers to help champion their work and ensure that the networks are thriving, active, welcoming and democratic communities.
About the authorSophia Crack has recently completed her first year as a UCL undergraduate, where she studies English Literature and Language. She enjoys reading and writing and is greatly interested in a career in journalism. She is very excited to come back to London for her second year to continue her UCL career, and she hopes to write many more articles in the future.
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