Civil Disagreement

I think disagreement is essential to the quest for truth, an idea I tried to capture in this poem that I wrote (I think I’ve shared it in other posts, but here it is anyway):
 (Originally written to be performed as a beatnik poem, complete with bongo accompaniment)
The moonlight breaking through the clouds
The sun peaking through the gray mist
One man running through many crowds
Ambiguous as a clenched fist
A sign waiting up in the sky
A bright spot amidst the darkness
One man ready to jump and fly
Conflict asserts her agelessness
The joy of first discovery
The pain of not fully knowing
One man deep in recovery
The Search is forever flowing
A quest for truth
A search for life
Conflict brings us
Beauty in strife
I may have come to this understanding because I often disagree with those around me. Part of this is my tendency to play devil’s advocate, partially my desire to be an individual, largely due to my skepticism and incredibly opinionated nature. (And of course the obvious reasons- being a liberal, feminist, budding intellectual Mormon at BYU, one of the largest bastions of conservative thought).
Given that I am in the minority in my views on a variety of subjects, it occasionally happens that people make comments or assertions that are derogatory or vilify those that share some of my ideologies. Generally this is done as a way of building the community, a sort of other-ing, where you begin to define yourself by what you are not and find refuge against a common enemy—the rallying around the flag technique that often results in a surge of nationalism after crises (Pearl Harbor and 9/11 for example).

Henry David Thoreau, who inspired the title of this post, quite blatantly.
Usually I brush off these comments because generally it’s only a passing piece in the conversation and once said it’s quickly forgotten. However, sometimes I feel obligated to disagree or offer a different perspective. I struggle sometimes with wording my comments correctly (this is probably because of many factors—being an English major who seeks to craft perfect wording, not wanting to offend others, wanting to offer insight, but not knowing how much historical background or understanding others have and not wanting to cause another to unnecessarily doubt or question without choosing that path).
Despite these concerns, I comment a decent amount in settings where my views represent the minority or dissenting opinion. I think it is incredibly important in these situations to respond civilly and to show respect for those that may think differently. While I am somewhat skeptical of the amount of thought that people have put into forming their own beliefs, I have found it better to treat them as if their beliefs have been formed after serious thought and soul-searching. I want my beliefs and opinions to be treated that way, so I strive to respond to others in kind.
It can be difficult in discussions of religion or politics where passions run hot and thought is tied closely to questions of absolute truth to maintain civility and respect. This is understandable given how close to our hearts the opinions and thoughts that are shared are. It can feel like the rejection of our opinions is the same as a rejection of us. This need not be the case. We can disagree with what people think while maintaining respect and love for those people (which happened recently to me in a discussion with other interns from BYU in DC, is modeled by Harry Reid and Mike Lee, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt and Prof. X and Magneto, who have a bit too much violence in their friendship for me, but still respect each other and want the best, even though they disagree).

Magneto and Xavier both seeking a better world, friends to the bitter end, even as they oppose each other.
The search for truth and understanding contains by necessity disagreement. If we never consider ideas that challenge our own, we can never move forward or fully form our beliefs. The truth will withstand whatever is thrown at it and challenging the beliefs that we hold will help us more fully form our own and realize the holes and flaws in the logic that we may be using to believe what we do.
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” J. Reuben Clark
Learning to respectfully disagree is also a wonderful life skill. I guess you could go through life agreeing with everyone and not really having thoughts of your own, or suppressing them in favor of others’, but that doesn’t seem like a great way to live to me. Our perspectives can change and be broadened as our beliefs are challenged. We may believe even more fiercely that our ideas are right, but ideally that belief will become more nuanced, a deeper belief that acknowledges the validity and appeal of the ideas of others.
We need to embrace disagreement and debate, while staying away from contention. That may seem paradoxical to some, but I don’t find disagreement and debate inherently contentious (perhaps because I love debate and playing devil’s advocate). I think the difference is in the goal of the discussion. As long as the end goal is understanding and the conversation is filled with love then contention isn’t a worry. However, when the focus begins to be more of a tearing down of others rather than reaching a mutual understanding, the tone shifts toward contentious.
“Civil disobedience is a moral weapon in the fight for justice.” The Great Debaters

I think adjusting this quote slightly gives some insight into the role of civil disagreement. It could read, “Civil disagreement is a moral weapon in the fight for truth.” Yes, I claim morality of disagreeing civilly. Let us all fight for truth using moral weapons and disagree, but do it civilly (you know, while drinking tea [herbal or fruit tea, obviously], listening to Chopin and eating cucumber sandwiches or muffins).

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