Productive discourse takes more than agreeing to disagree

Annika Horne

Why do we think it’s better to avoid controversial conversations? Does this keep debate civil, or does it erode our ability to check our own biases? When someone has an opinion, they might be confident it will go over well, but they might also be inhibited by the fear of social rejection. Rejecting those with unusual beliefs shuts down interesting conversations. Ideas need to be challenged because dissent shows us an alternative to conformity. This is particularly important in the current political climate, since the Pew Research Center has found the share of “ideologically consistent” Americans has doubled since 2004.

Political polarization has many adverse outcomes, but among the worst is “motivated reasoning,” Arguments between two motivated reasoners may be polite, but each side only feigns interest in the other’s perspective. Paul Woodruff, UT philosophy professor and distinguished author, believes discord can be productive.

“Among the most useful skills we can take away from a UT education is the ability to experience disagreement as a positive,” Woodruff said in an email. “If we skim over disagreements we are not treating each other with respect.”  

It is tempting to entertain opposing ideologies only as a means to find flaws to hone future counter arguments. But Art Markman, psychology professor and director of the Human Dimensions of Organization program, noted the importance of learning from those you disagree with.

“It is actually important to engage with people whose opinions differ from your own…to come to understand why a reasonable person might believe something very different from what you believe,” Markman said in an email.

Agreeing to disagree is fine as long as you’ve heard the other side’s argument. This is especially true in political conversations. Ignoring all but one political ideology leads us to ignore evidence that challenges our worldview and prevents people from learning. If you can’t think of a single time you’ve changed your opinion on an important issue, you may not be listening to other perspectives. According to a study published by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, respondents with the most political misconceptions were those who got all their news from one source.

This correlation may be caused by the Backfire Effect, the tendency for our beliefs to become stronger in the face of evidence which contradicts them. Those who hear the same political narrative over and over again can’t be expected to respond well to evidence which contradicts that narrative.

We are products of our culture and at a large university like UT, each of us is guaranteed to encounter many students whose background is radically different from our own.  Each student at The University of Texas will have a different experience and draw different conclusions as a result.  We must not only tolerate ideas we disagree with, but learn to treat them with the respect we hope our own beliefs will receive.

Horne is a radio-television-film freshman from Baltimore, Maryland.