Dealers of Ideas: Lean in to Disagreement
How boring would life be if we all agreed on everything? I write this blog for people that disagree with me, not for people that share my disposition. I am outspoken about my ideas so that they are heard by those that disagree with me; what is there to be gained or learned by discussing ideas with people you agree with? I think nothing, at least nothing with any real value. Yet, I am constantly surprised at how others behave in the face of disagreement; they realize the difference in opinion and walk away from the discussion, usually writing the other person off as “ignorant” or incapable of understanding their own errors in reasoning.
Well, I wish I knew what would change this pattern amongst my peers. All I can do is make sure that I do not do the same. I respect the intelligence and the capabilities of another person far too much to rob them of the opportunity to expand their mind and assist in expanding mine. The interesting aspect of disagreement and debate is the exercise itself, that’s where the value resides. Both people engaged in disagreement gain through the activity of disagreement in itself; having to follow another’s logic, entertain it within your own mind, and articulating back the errors that they made is no easy task. Nonetheless, it’s a task that is necessary for the proper development of your mind and your ideas.
There are reasons why I believe the ideas that I hold and those reasons are ideas justified by a whole other set of reasons. It’s complex and an interrelated web of ideas that I am in the best position to survey and then articulate to an audience. Depending on how complicated the idea in question, the chances that someone is able to change my mind in one conversation is zero to none. Which is why I have little desire to change another’s mind when I begin a discussion or debate with anyone I disagree with; all I desire is a challenging and interesting discussion. It is only through this process that minds can change. Minds change as a function of how well you articulate your ideas. I assure everyone, to save them some time, that I do indeed believe the words that come out of my mouth.
I expect and treat other people as if they are in the best position to change their ideas about the world and I remain optimistic that reality and the truth will prevail. Perhaps, their ideas are not the ones that need to change, but rather my own. How could I expect that they change their ideas? Because I think I am right? That is not a very practical expectation to hold another person to because it prevents discussion. In other words, disagreeing requires understanding. It requires that you grant your opposition with the benefit of the doubt; that their motives are pure and follow their reasoning empathetically. Take their ideas seriously, regardless of how many times you have entertained the same ideas with other people. Ideas are serious.
Particularly when it comes to very abstract ideas, such as those ideas that steer another one’s worldview; you have to fully immerse yourself in another’s world in order to entertain these types of ideas. I have drastically different ideas about how the world is structured, functions, and progresses through time and space compared to my professors. And in the field of economics, this difference is no small thing nor is it something that can be ignored. It requires conscious effort (on both sides) to get through some concepts. As a student, faced with the constraint of passing a class, it requires entertaining ideas that contradict with your own for much longer than you typically would otherwise. In the business world, having conflicting ideas has practical implications that often cannot be ignored or walked away from. If you cannot handle disagreement on the abstract level, how do you expect to handle disagreement when it matters?
Some problems are of our own mind (can I get away with calling these cognitive problems?); these problems require us to understand something. Some problems are more practical; problems that require technical skill as well as understanding. This should not scare us or upset us. The good thing is that our world consists mostly of problems and that many of them have been solved for us by the work of innovators, philosophers, and revolutionaries that have since passed.
Why is this a good thing? Well, for one thing, a problem implies that there is a solution. All problems, by their very nature, can ultimately be solved one day; partially and imperfectly so, at the very least, immediately. Ultimately, we aspire to have the knowledge and fortitude that complete solutions demand.
Those ultimate solutions are, what we can call, Grand Ideas. All of the Grand Ideas that have ever developed were the resultant of grand disagreements. Socrates debates Homer; Aristotle debates Plato; Locke debates Hobbes; Rousseau debates with Locke and Hobbes; Nietzsche debates with everyone; Wittgenstein debates himself. (Haha!)
I said at the start that I am outspoken about my ideas and I never hesitate to examine the ideas of others as critically as I examine my own. Unfortunately, the most likely result of criticising someone’s ideas is now hysteria and outrage. For one reason or another, people misconstrue criticism of their ideas with a criticism of themselves. Disagreement is never personal. If you, even for a moment, find personal offense when your ideas about the world are criticised then I can assure you that you will never accomplish anything grand nor contribute to anything grand.
That type of attitude toward your ideas, in itself, proves the degree to which your mind is closed. When your mind is closed in a dynamic and evolving world you cannot survive, let alone thrive. It is never personal when your ideas are being criticized. It is never personal when people disagree with your ideas.
I began the article by indicating that I find it boring to talk to people I agree with. If you challenge yourself to survey the landscape of your own ideas and beliefs enough you will find the same boredom to engage with people you agree with as well. Once you know what your beliefs and ideas are, and can map out the ideas that justify these larger ideas, then you will be thirsty for criticism. The challenge is that it is no small task mapping the ideas in your mind. It is not as simple as asking yourself why you believe a certain idea or set of ideas. Our brains trick us.
This is why writing is important to the development of our mind. One cannot find the flaws in our reasoning by remaining in our mind alone. It is not until you can write your arguments out on paper that you will find flaws in your reasoning. Even greater than that, however, is to engage another intelligent person in a thoughtful discussion. The act of talking through difficult and challenging issues and questions is necessary to begin to properly survey and map out the ideas in your mind. This mapping is refined and improved upon through writing, informal and formal. These are well-established pedagogical strategies.
I think the best way to conclude is with a question. How do we expect to change the world, to fight bad ideas and elevate good ideas, if we refuse to engage with people that we disagree with? Each and every one of us should consider themselves as a Dealer of Ideas and Broker of Knowledge and lean into conflict and disagreement.