Disagreeing Well in Public Life: How can conflicting opinions coexist peacefully in politics?

The Disagreeing Well panel sit on stage in front of a presentation screen.
The Disagreeing Well panel sit on stage in front of a presentation screen.
VPEE Student Journalist Defne Kutay shares highlights and reflections on the panel discussion, part of UCL’s Disagreeing Well Campaign.

Politics should never be regarded as a competition where the contestant with the loudest voice wins. Disputes can only be effectively settled if we allow for conflicting opinions to exist peacefully.

But how might this be possible? How can we disagree well?

Embracing diversity also means welcoming a wide variety of perspectives and acknowledging opposing views. UCL’s Disagreeing Well campaign aims to cover this issue by providing our community and the wider public with the skills needed to have respectful conversations. Through educational materials and panel events, the campaign investigates how we can accommodate diverging ideas and maintain mutual respect.

UCL has held three panel events as part of the Disagreeing Well public series: Disagreeing Well in Higher Education , Disagreeing Well in an Online World , and the latest addition: Disagreeing Well in Public Life.

Held on the 15 May, Disagreeing Well in Public Life saw five speakers join broadcaster, radio presenter and panel Chair Ayesha Hazarika to address the role of debate in the polarised political spectrum. The speakers included the UK Director of More in Common, Luke Tryl; CEO of the Jo Cox Foundation, Su Moore; Chair of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, Luciana Berger; Executive Chair of Bright Blue, Ryan Shorthouse; and Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Public Policy at UCL, Jeff Howard.

Is disagreement beneficial?

Panel chair Ayesha Hazarika initiated the discussion by explaining that diversity of thought is favourable for society. We should not aim to reduce differing opinions; rather, we should shift our focus towards being able to disagree without severing our relationships with other people. We should learn to listen critically to opposing arguments instead of attacking them.

Is the solution simply being nicer to each other?

In his remarks, Luke Tryl mentioned that although it is imperative to have a kind and open-minded approach when communicating with others, disagreeing well does not mean avoiding controversy or not disagreeing at all.

Su Moore’s speech also brought to attention that avoiding disagreements causes politicians to avoid addressing certain crucial issues. Opinions that challenge the status quo are key instruments in bringing about meaningful policy change. Hence, eliminating disagreements altogether is not a desirable solution for any democracy.

Jeff Howard stated that disagreeing well does not equate to disagreeing with total calmness and detachment, but that we should use our enthusiasm. "Politics is really passionate," Ayesha Hazarika added, acknowledging the potential for strongly held opinions to become emotional or heated. It would be unrealistic to expect politicians not to engage in spirited arguments. Such disagreements are fundamental, inevitable, and even beneficial to how we function as a community.

"There is enormous value in engaging with those with whom we deeply disagree."

Jeff Howard explained disagreeing with others is actually a constructive learning process in the following three scenarios:

Scenario 1: I am not sure, or I might be wrong.

Disagreements can teach us new things by providing various arguments and opposing perspectives. This can be an opportunity for us to think critically and test our convictions.

Scenario 2: I believe that I am mostly right.

In the majority of cases, there is no strict right or wrong answer. Most opinions are multifaceted and depend on multiple factors. It is possible to be in general disagreement with someone’s opinion but agree with some smaller aspects in their argument. Therefore, even if we believe in the correctness of our argument, listening to opposing opinions could help us notice things we might have overlooked.

Scenario 3: I am sure that I am right.

If we are completely confident of the faultlessness of our stance, engaging with others that have strictly differing ideas is still beneficial. Firstly, if people can find flaws in our arguments, this can push us to further strengthen our understanding of the issue. Furthermore, the conversation can help the opponents as well as the bystanders learn new things. Learning is not a one-sided process.

According to Luciana Berger, avoidance of disagreement is driving low electoral turnout. Therefore, increasing our engagement with opposing opinions and learning how to listen, as well as how to respond to them, is essential for a fully functioning democracy.

"Intentions matter."

For Ryan Shorthouse, debating entails both individual and social benefits.

Moreover, he pointed out that when debating, it is important not to take things too personally. We should keep in mind that most people have good intentions. In a very basic sense, people debate to explain their personal convictions and not to attack others. If we think from this perspective, it can become easier to listen to opponents and keep an open mind.

In a nutshell...

The first step to disagreeing well is to acknowledge the benefits of disagreement:

  1. Providing personal and intellectual development.
  2. Drawing attention to issues concerning the betterment of society.
  3. Challenging the status quo.
  4. Encouraging higher electoral turnout.
  5. Hearing out differing perspectives, which leads to new learning opportunities.

If we all commit to keeping a more positive and open-minded approach towards opposing opinions, it will become progressively easier to disagree well. This will not only strengthen democracy, but also help create a more progressive society and support individual intellectual advancement.

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