Not if we disagree, but when. Because we will always disagree eventually. Always.
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Is that bad?
It depends who you ask!
Disagreement, or lack of consensus, is going to happen whenever two or more of us are interacting. Why, then, has it become so risky, this perfectly normal opportunity to show our work or learn another point of view? Why are we so insecure we can’t tolerate the slightest disagreement? Are our egos so fragile we can’t stand to be wrong or rethink a position? Does our fear of moral condemnation outweigh our ability to consider ideas and information (facts) clearly and critically and speak honestly about our conclusions?
When did differing opinions become a matter of hate and violence, and speaking our truth start leading to such brutal consequences?
Do we no longer understand how to agree to disagree?
Will authoritarianism ever lead to true agreement, or is the best we can hope for a sullen silence and mandated obedience?
(Don’t forget the French revolution.)
Certainly, it appears more and more people value power over truth, rigidity over resilience, and mindless agreement over genuine collaboration and teamwork.
If we must be in agreement all the time, there’s no hope of true cooperation and we each remain locked in our own narrow impoverished bubble, interacting only with those whose bubbles look exactly like ours. Except I don’t know of anyone who has exactly the same bubble as another. But then we’re experts at constructing believable facades.
Insisting on 100% agreement all the time guarantees cultural collapse. We can’t do it. We’re not made that way. It’s a social dead end for humanity. We cannot thrive or even survive without a healthy complex social system among our own kind as well as with countless other forms of life.
The friction of disagreement, of difference, is essential. It keeps us flexible and demands we exercise our learning and listening skills as well as use our imagination and empathy. Disagreement is a sign of respect and caring, both for ourselves and our point of view and experience, and for others. If we care enough to disagree openly and peacefully, we’re signaling our willingness to make an authentic commitment and contribution. We’re not sitting back accepting brainwashing passively, but actively participating and engaged, examining, exploring, and asking questions about whatever is in our attention.
At least some of us are.
Others demand an environment of complete agreement with no questions asked. Heavy social penalties occur if someone steps out of line. There is no negotiation, no cooperation, no discussion, no new information or showing of work. You will agree and obey. Or else.
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Fortunately, we humans have a wide rebellious streak, some more than others. Certain people are never going to sit down and shut up. Certain people do not worship the status quo, especially if it doesn’t serve the majority. These folks disagree, and they say so. They provide information (facts) to back up their point of view. They ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions. They shine the clear light of critical thinking on issues and ideology.
They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Disagreement does not need to be a call to arms. It’s not hate. It’s not disrespect or intolerance. It’s not prejudice or bigotry. It doesn’t mean we have to cut perfectly healthy relationships out of our lives. Disagreement is a chance for connection and an expanded empathy. It’s an opportunity to learn. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and a diverse system is a healthy one.
A system in which disagreement is forbidden cannot thrive, adapt, and grow. It’s brittle and stunted, just like the scared, shriveled human beings controlling it.
Want peace? Want tolerance, justice, and respect? Learn, demonstrate, teach, and support the kind and gentle art of disagreement.
“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.”
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I’ve been thinking about this quote for a couple of weeks now. It’s especially relevant for these times, when social and political tensions are so high around division and unity.
We’ve understood the strength inherent in unity for a long time, but what exactly is unity? Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “the state of being united or joined as a whole.” Note ‘sameness’ is not part of the definition.
Division and disconnection, however, are excellent ways to disempower individuals or groups of people. Authoritarians know this and take advantage of successful strategies and tools to achieve social chaos, violence, and play on our innate paranoia and tendency to distrust and blame others. Controlling media and communication as well as the flow of information (facts), stamping out free speech and critical thinking, invalidating science and data, weakening education, and allowing ideologues, fanatics, and seriously disordered people to gain and maintain positions of power are direct frontal attacks on unity.
We can see how highly effective such strategies are. Slowly, we’ve drifted into the belief that unity is sameness. Black and white can’t work together. Men and women are enemies. Republicans and Democrats, left and right, vaxers and anti-vaxers, must all maintain oppositional positions.
But unity does not mean sameness.
Neither can unity be forced. Some time ago I wrote about Gaven de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. As far as I’m concerned, this should be required reading for every woman in the world. One of the concepts de Becker has coined is that of “forced teaming.”
Forced teaming is an intentional, directed manipulation projecting shared purpose or experience where none exists. It’s an effort to force premature trust and false intimacy. The example de Becker uses involves a strange man approaching a woman juggling bags of groceries and offering to help. Ignoring the response of “No, thank you,” the man speaks in an insistent, friendly, pleasant way of “we.” “We neighbors need to help one another out.” The woman, polite and not wanting to be unpleasant to this nice man, acquiesces. She unlocks her door and lets the man in with a couple of bags of her groceries.
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Forced teaming is extremely hard to deal with because it’s subtle, and rejecting it feels rude.
I tripped over that word and fell flat on my face. My inability and complete unwillingness to ever be rude has handcuffed me my whole life. It’s opened me up to abuse and trauma, silenced me, and fueled my self-hatred and self-harm.
All because I didn’t want to be rude.
I never consider whether someone is being rude to me. All I have room for is the desire to avoid behaving in such a way at all costs.
Ladies, when a strange man approaches us in a vulnerable situation, it’s rude. And dangerous. He may mean well. He may not. We can’t tell and we’re fools if we trust a strange man when we’re in an unsafe situation. I don’t care how well he’s disguised as Prince Charming or how solicitous and warm and friendly he is. Forced teaming does not occur in a situation of coincidence. It’s deliberate and directed at manipulating us. Are we unable to push past the taboo of rudeness and say, “I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want it”? Would we rather put ourselves at real risk for violence? Is the social mandate against rudeness, especially for women, that strong?
It’s not, when I lay it out like this, on the screen, in words. Of course I can see how foolish it is to put manners ahead of my own health and safety. But in the moment, I’d be a woman who didn’t notice my “No, thank you,” was ignored. I wouldn’t want to make a fuss or a scene. I wouldn’t want to hurt the nice guy’s feelings. I wouldn’t want to be a bitch.
I wouldn’t want to be rude.
Oxford Online Dictionary defines rude as “offensively impolite or ill-mannered; startlingly abrupt.”
Notice the subjectivity of that definition. Many people currently appear to believe disagreement is rude. Biological fact is rude. The truth is rude. Boundaries are rude. Questions are rude. Discussion and debate are rude. Speaking up in self-defense is rude. Saying no is rude.
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Rudeness is tricky. We all have a private list of rude behaviors that make us cringe. It’s important to note the list varies from person to person. I’ve known people who were brought up to consider sneezing out loud rude. They go through all kinds of contortions to avoid it, emitting a variety of hilarious sounds. It always makes me smile when I run into this. I wasn’t raised with a prohibition against sneezing, so to my way of thinking it’s not rude if the sneeze is covered or contained and a murmured “excuse me” follows it.
Rudeness is so often in the eye of the beholder.
Of course, those who try to control us with forced teaming and other manipulative techniques will be loud about how rude we are when we refuse to accept those tactics. We’re likely to be publicly shamed and called hateful names.
But we’re less likely to get dragged into a car, raped, or murdered.
It boils down to the old problem of saying no. If we decide saying no is rude, the only polite way to live is to have no power and no boundaries. Who would benefit from a such a compliant and disempowered population?
I like the idea of oneness of purpose. It’s a container for strength, cooperation, and integrity. However, this, too, is a minefield because, to put it rudely, people lie about their purpose and agenda. Forced teaming comes into play. A small group with intentions to grab power approaches a larger, well-established and organized group working for empowerment and support of a marginalized population and says we’re with you! We want the same thing! Look how alike we are! You have to include us!
Individuals and groups who have been marginalized are particularly loath to repel this kind of invasion because they believe in kindness, tolerance, and an equal playing field, and they know from their own experience how painful and unjust systemic discrimination and bigotry are. They are successfully infiltrated, manipulated, and weakened from the inside by the smaller group, who never had any intention of working and playing well with others and only wanted to co-opt the established group’s presence, position, and power for their own ends.
To achieve oneness of purpose, we would have to agree on priorities, have equal access to information (facts) and resources, create strategies and systems to improve our situation, tell the truth, and consent to work with people different from us in a variety of ways.
It sounds lovely. It also sounds like fantasy in our current social context.
Never in my lifetime has unity felt so out of reach.
Never in my lifetime has unity appeared so necessary.
I’ve been trained as a librarian, and one of the most important tenets of professional librarians is freedom of information. One of the things that drove me out of my job as an elementary school librarian in a public school system was pressure to take Harry Potter off the shelves. I told the school board I wouldn’t do it. If they had to fire me, so be it, but I wouldn’t take the books off the shelves. I asked if any school board member had actually read one of the books in question. None had. Surprise, surprise.
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Freedom of speech and freedom in general have been hot topics since the 2016 presidential election and COVID. I’ve written before about freedom of speech, which is not all-inclusive.
In the last six years, cultural censorship has increased enormously, but it’s failed to silence anti-vaxxers, proponents of the election Big Lie, COVID naysayers, and people who believe men cannot become women, or vice versa. It’s also failed to address increasing civil violence, disconnection, and unrest.
Does censorship work? Is it a useful tool?
It doesn’t appear so. I’m irresistibly reminded of the “Just Say No” drug campaign for school kids and sexual abstinence programs for teens. Do they work?
Not so much.
It seems to be a human character trait that the minute we’re forbidden to do something we move heaven and earth to do it. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at Pandora. Dozens of old oral stories from around the world are about people who broke their promise not to look and suffered the consequences.
I’ve never thought to ask myself what problem we’re trying to address with censorship.
Is it cultural trust?
Possibly. Trust is an easily manipulated quality, because it’s a belief. Belief, as we’ve seen demonstrated over and over during the last years, is more powerful than facts. People will die for their beliefs. They’ll kill for them.
Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by access to all kinds of information (facts) or opinions? Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by censorship?
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I’m not sure trust is the root problem, though, or not the entire root. Perhaps the deepest root is education and, paradoxically, freedom. Authoritarianism is characterized by blind submission to authority. One of the tools of authoritarianism is censorship, including limiting the rights to vote, read, write, report the facts, speak, and teach.
Censorship implies people can’t be trusted with a full range of information. They are unable to make the “right” choices, according to the authoritarian(s) at the top. Thus, the public is spoon-fed only that which supports the authoritarian power. Asking questions is not allowed. Challenge is not allowed. Discussion and debate are not allowed.
Don’t you worry your little head about substance abuse. Just say no. We don’t talk about sex and our bodies in this house. It’s dirty and shameful. Just abstain from inhabiting your healthy young body.
The subject of censorship is tricky, because I suspect we’d all like to have the power to censor certain voices on social media, on radio, on television, in the bookstores, on YouTube, and on platforms like Substack. Some of the propaganda and opinions out there, the lies masquerading as facts, are horrifying. However, my lie might be your fact. Your heart-felt ideology about eating meat may be in direct conflict with what I need to sustain my health and quality of life. Should one of us have the power to censor the other?
This is where the trust problem comes in. We don’t trust one another to make the “right” choices or believe the “right” people. I think many don’t trust themselves to make the “right” choices. They rely on someone they have faith in to tell them what to do.
The “right” choices imply the possibility of “wrong” choices, but this is black-and-white, overly simplistic thinking. Perhaps you need to be a vegetarian in order to sustain your health. Perhaps I need to be a carnivore. We’re both right. Does that mean a full range of diet and nutrition information should be available to all? Can we, as a culture, agree to live and let live?
I have my doubts.
The current specific issue on Substack is the subject of COVID. Evidently, there are writers on the platform spreading dis- and/or misinformation about COVID. Scientists on Substack sending meticulously researched, linked, and data-driven information take issue with that and want Substack to censor such writers for the sake of the public good.
Substack, in response, wrote the above essay, maintaining their position against censorship and explaining their thoughts about it.
I’m in sympathy with both sides. I, too, am frustrated with the sheer volume of unmitigated bullshit out there. But I never forget many people would say my sources of information are bullshit, and I would fight hard to maintain access to those sources.
Maybe the problem is not how deep the bullshit is, but how bad we are at recognizing it. And that’s a product of our broken education system and our inability to think critically. Both these cultural trends make us increasingly vulnerable to authoritarianism.
As I’ve discussed before, choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. If we want optimum freedom to choose, we must accept the consequences of our choices.
Taking responsibility for our choices is not humanity’s greatest strength at this moment in history.
If I was Supreme Ruler of the World (God forbid), I believe I would vote with Substack on this issue of censorship. Silencing people does not address the root of the problem, only a symptom. We need to figure out a way to fix our educational system so we all learn critical thinking at every stage of education. Not only does this empower people to make their own choices and recognize the difference between lies and truth, opinions and information, it allows public access to a full range of viewpoints.
We are never going to silence the liars and manipulators. They will continue to try to obtain power and money, and they will continue to aggressively work to silence those who disagree with them. The best weapon against them is to firmly empower ourselves and others with education and the ability to think critically. We don’t need to be protected. We need to be armed.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?