From the US National Archives on Flickr

Disagreeing with someone is not easy. Nor is it easy when someone disagrees with you.
In fact, constructive disagreement could probably be classified as a serious skill, one that few of us truly possess.

However, in our most tense moments, where disagreement is prone to be least subtle is of course the time when that skill is most important.

Groups of people with varying perspectives, experiences and ideas are time after time found to be more effective at solving problems than groups of homogeneous experts, and that is the theme of what I want to briefly explore here.

The impetus for writing this probably has less to do with any recent events, such as the lack of a climate bill or similar national political boondoggles, but may actually be more so due to a recent West Wing marathon. But regardless of the reason, I feel inspired to share a remarkable document produced by a past president of my undergraduate alma mater, Hampshire College, called the Principles of Discourse:
1. That we value truth and the process of seeking truth as ends in themselves;
2. That we accept responsibility to articulate a position as close to the truth as one can make it, using to the best of one’s ability, available evidence and the rules of reason, logic and relevance;
3. That we listen openly, recognizing always that new information may alter one’s position;
4. That we welcome evaluation and accept, and even encourage, disagreement and criticism, even to the point of seeking out for ourselves that which will disprove our position;
5. That we refuse to reduce disagreement to personal attacks or attacks on groups or classes of individuals;
6. That we value civility, even in disagreement;
7. And, that we reject the premise that ends, no matter how worthy, can justify means which violate these principles.

Disagreement should not be feared. Nor should being questioned, or someone else’s doubt, skepticism or hesitation. Whether it is working out an issue in one’s personal life, discussing the merits and downfalls of local policies or debating the most prominent national and global issues, which are far too many to even begin to list here, there seems to be a growing culture of silofication - the idea that we are becoming increasingly isolated, largely due to the organization of various online mediums, from basically things we don’t like.

Maybe I’m wrong, in fact, I hope I am wrong. But it seems as though disagreement, even though prima facie accepted in our culture is just that, merely a superficial symbolic gesture. Disagreement is loosing ground as a fundamental piece to the culture that formed one of the most free democracies in the world.

Perhaps today there are more stakeholders who are more invested, and therefore have more to lose. But people seem to have picked a “side,” like Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative, pro-choice versus pro-life and now appear unwilling to reassess their position based on a fear of seeming weak.

I think the idea here is that something like the Principles of Discourse mentioned above can be a truly powerful encourager of constructive debate, disagreement and increased understanding, and from that, more thorough, long-term and nuanced problem-solving.

Some online platforms provide the opportunity to create environments where these discussions are encouraged, but they are not the answer, merely a tool. The answer is a change in education and culture.

When delegates from up and down the coast met in Philadelphia in 1787, they represented an incredibly broad range of values and opinions and were still even in a fairly revolutionary mood. Yet, throughout that summer, those delegates crafted arguably one of the most democratic foundations to government ever seen on this planet.

And they did it without any technology, tools or modern conveniences. But what they had, which often seems to be lacking in 2010, is a common purpose. And although we may have disagreements, the de facto trust that we are all working towards a better future in a genuine way has been lost.

So I leave you with not an answer but a question: If we want to move forward, on whatever level, with comprehensive solutions to our most pressing problems, how do we restore the trust and culture needed to have constructive and nuanced discussions?