On Disagreement

Disagreement is an art, a science, and the most challenging and important skill you’ll ever learn. It doesn’t mean adopting a relativism so strong it borders on nihilism. It doesn’t even mean abandoning the conviction that you are right. It means not having to prove your rightness to others. If anyone seems able to disagree, it is a politician. However, presidential debates are only semblances of disagreement. They’re not disagreeing with each other’s arguments; they’re ignoring them. That’s their job. But this tactic doesn’t easily transfer to personal relationships. Because successfully disagreeing is not merely having a different opinion–most people can do that–but accepting that difference and not trying to change it. And agreeing to disagree doesn’t count. To agree to disagree is to put an end to the discussion because disagreement is too much for you to handle, throwing in a pinch of agreement like salt in a spicy food.

People aren’t usually on the offense, but they usually perceive others as on the offense and hence get on the defense. This, in turn, looks like offense to the person who unknowingly came off as on the offense originally, who in turn gets on the defense as well. The cycle repeats. When you think someone is attacking you, they probably think they’re acting in self-defense. And when you think you’re acting in self-defense, the other person probably thinks you’re attacking them. Nobody’s disagreeing with anyone, but we want more than that: we want to be explicitly and enthusiastically agreed with, or we will keep repeating what we’ve been saying for the past half hour, which nobody actually disputes, to an imaginary adversary. We have this unspoken belief that we’ll get some sort of life points for winning the conversation, except winning a conversation is like winning a parade.

The dynamic is the same with growling dogs and cats who pee behind furniture. What we perceive as a threat is actually a response to a threat, often one that doesn’t exist because it, too, is merely a response to a perceived threat. When you walk your dog and it starts fighting with another dog, half the time it’s the humans’ fault. Dogs sense their humans’ anxiety and take it to mean a conflict has arisen. Cats get nervous about lack of enclosure because it means vulnerability to attack, so they try to carve out their own space with the scent of their piss (it makes sense if you’re a cat). Gerbils also pee and poop when they’re nervous, which is all the time, and it’s disgusting but they can’t help it. So give your pets – and people – the benefit of the doubt.

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