self help

The art of disagreement

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“Everybody gave parties. And there was a lot of drinking. Some visiting literary celebrity would show up, Partisan Review would make a party or I would make a party. Everybody came. And it was a really passionate intellectual life. It’s hard to imagine today, but people actually came to blows over literary disagreements,” said Norman Podhoretz in this 2017 interview with John Leland for the New York Times.
It’s not hard to imagine coming to blows with friends and family–and not just over literary disagreements. Often we put our faith in a system, an arrangement, a technique, a gharana or one guru whom we then defend or assert as the best. This mode of disagreement has no shortage of proponents, from anonymous social media trolls, to television news commentators, to our own sermonizing relatives, and most of all to ourselves. What tends to be missing in these interactions is an openness to comprehending different views, or worse, to behaving with civility. But what if the joy we derived from discussions was not in the “winning” or “converting,” but in coming to a better understanding of how our own beliefs have formed? What if the ultimate reward was changing our own point of view, or coming one step closer to some greater truth? How could we approach discussions less like a battle or crusade and more like an artform?
One venerable form of argumentation that goes back to the 3rd century BCE in India was known as “Śāstrārtha” (शास्त्रार्थ). Śāstr stood for ideology or science of and ārtha for meaning or insight. There was no bloodshed and there were no crusaders. The tools used were wit, prudence, logic and reasoning. The debate included four tidy steps. The first was Pratijñā (प्रतिज्ञा), which required stating “the fact” one wanted to establish by the end of the debate. The second—and most important because it is the most lacking today—was Pūrvapakṣa (पूर्वपक्ष), where one put forth the oppositions’ point of view, the view of “the former” (pūrva) “side” (pakṣa). This required the arguer to not just echo the opposition’s pitch or manifesto, but also provide proof, and to faithfully follow the logic and reasoning the assertion as if it were their own. This ensured that the opposition was convinced that you actually understand what you were opposing. In Pūrvapakṣa, if a debator was unable to accurately demonstrate this understanding of the opposing opinion, they would be corrected and would have to demonstrate again that they understood the position in question. The debate could not move forward without this insight. Khanḍanam (खन्डनम्) was the third stage of debate, where one had to substantiate the opponent’s assertion as logically flawed or inconsistent with proof. The last and final step of the debate was Siddhāntam (सिद्धान्तम्). One had to now voice one’s own postulation, which would open up the debate for the opposition to challenge. Underlying all this would be the condition that the postulations would be debated, but never the intent behind them. A debate of this nature enabled deeper insights for not just both speakers, but also the audiences. Rudimentary conflicts were replaced with a more advanced meeting of minds.
Of course, we’d never impose such a high degree of methodological rigour on our family discussions or WhatsApp group exchanges, but this ancient precedent may prove both inspiring and instructive. Holding polarized beliefs is being human. Evolution requires diversity. Constructive dissent scaffolds learning. The pursuit of truth is hard and the truth is a dynamic thing. Civil disagreements, in the words of noted Indologist Arthur Basham, “imply a full realisation that the world is more complex and subtle than we think, and that what is true of a thing in one of its aspects may at the same time be false in another.”
As a clinical psychologist, I have spent the last 20 years mediating disagreements between family, friends, lovers, and leaders of organizations, most recently using the new methodlogy of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®,which incorporates hard fun into the process of arbitration. More generally, I find “leaning in,” listening and reflecting to be indispensable tools in the art of dissent. I ask of my clients to look to the Munk debates , my favourite being between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens, who debated the idea “Religion is a force for good in the world.” The next time you disagree with a friend of a lover, remember this quote by Albert Einstein : “There is a way to critique intelligently and respectfully, without eroding the validity of your disagreement. It boils down to manners.”

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