Balancing humility and conviction is the art of disagreeing well

Those with passionate convictions must be willing to concede their arguments may be flawed or even wrong if useful debate is to happen on campus, says UCL president Michael Spence

August 31, 2023
Two people having a disagreement over policies outside of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore to illustrate If we are to disagree well, we must learn to balance humility and conviction
Source: Getty Images (edited)

It is a given in most modern liberal democracies that diversity is a good thing – that it encourages innovation, enriches communities and helps to build economies.

But diversity also entails challenges. Diversity means difference, difference almost always entails disagreement, and disagreement can lead to division, threatening social cohesion.

For democracies, therefore, citizens learning to disagree well is not optional, but rather a core survival skill. Learning to live with, and even to celebrate, difference does not mean avoiding the disagreements that difference inevitably creates. It means facing up to disagreement and learning from the process.

Campus resource: Successful classroom discussions begin long before anyone speaks

As the American scholar David Schlosberg has stressed, even political thinkers within traditions of agonism, for whom the struggle between competing worldviews is a constant, highlight “the need for an ethic of agonistic respect across difference”. Chantal Mouffe, the post-Marxist academic, paints an ideal in which “the ‘other’ is no longer seen as an enemy to be destroyed, but as…somebody with whose ideas we are going to struggle but whose right to defend those ideas we will not put into question”.

The core question, then, is what this notion of “disagreeing well” might require of the participants to a conversation. This has a particular importance in educational institutions because it must surely be as students that young people acquire these skills that they will need as citizens.

The first thing to affirm is what “disagreeing well” cannot mean. In much of the current discussion of the issue, the assumption seems to be that disagreeing well involves leaving passionate conviction at the door. Emotional responses, such as taking offence, are particularly frowned upon. The model of disagreement offered seems to be an urbane debate among participants who don’t really care about the issue at hand. But this is impossible, because many of the issues about which people argue are profound matters of identity, justice and the future directions of our society. It would be peculiar if such issues did not touch upon deep emotions. Moreover, as UCL philosopher Emily McTernan has argued in her book, On Taking Offence, it would even be undesirable. The emotions it would seek to exclude, such as taking offence, perform important social and psychological functions. It is essential that conversations across difference involve real human beings and not passionless automatons.

But while disagreeing well cannot mean abandoning emotional engagement, it must begin with a particular mindset. This is a mindset of epistemic humility, of an openness to the possibility that I might be wrong, even about my passionate convictions, and even when I believe those convictions to flow from my own experience. For some, of course, this is a much more difficult ask than for others, perhaps sometimes even impossible. How difficult it is often stems from what I perceive to be the relative power of various participants in a dialogue. If my passionate conviction flows from experience that I regard as identity forming, and particularly if that experience has entailed being oppressed or rendered powerless, then being asked even to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong might seem like itself a form of oppression. But it is hard to imagine how genuine engagement can happen across difference unless I approach it with at least some willingness to conceive that my understanding might be incomplete, or even wrong.

I would argue that there are other skills, skills that can be taught and learned, important to the practice of disagreeing well. First, we need to show a willingness to listen carefully and to be open to the opinions of others. Too often dialogue involves participants waiting for their turn to speak, unwilling to let the conversation lead where it may. Genuine listening, and the habit of feeding back for correction what has been heard, are important parts of respecting the autonomy of participants to a conversation and letting them control their own narrative.

Second, it is important to recognise the expertise, experience or responsibility of the other party within a disagreement – all of which have epistemic weight that ought to be acknowledged and accorded respect.

Third, it is important to identify with some precision issues on which difference actually exists, finding common ground wherever possible. This is not an attempt to homogenise all difference. Far from it. It is an attempt to focus attention on the differences that matter and to minimise distracting noise from apparent differences that can, in fact, be resolved.

Fourth, it requires practice in the art of choosing language appropriate to the goal of increasing understanding, avoiding unhelpful hyperbole and the cheap shot.

At UCL, we are engaging both our staff and students in a conversation around what disagreeing well looks like. This notion is core to the values in UCL’s Strategic Plan 2022-27, and our students’ union’s strategy has a focus on this, recognising the role the union has to play in promoting freedom of speech. Our flagship Disagreeing Well campaign launches to the public this autumn, and will explore themes including how to disagree well in public life, online and between generations (free tickets are now available for our next event on 19 October).

We think practising the skill of disagreeing well is crucial, not only for the university to do its work, but for democracy more broadly to survive. Democracy demands that we do more than simply shout at each other. Doubtless there will be those who find even these scant suggestions idealistic or even objectionable. You are welcome to disagree; just do it well!

Michael Spence is president and provost at UCL.

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Reader's comments (4)

Assuming that the hypothesis is correct. Why is this something that must be taught by Universities? What about the students who don't go onto university? Don't they also need these skills? If so the appropriate place for this material is in school, probably secondary school alongside communication and debating. That does not prevent University courses from building on and sharpening these skills, much as it does with the other skills acquired in schools.
There's a flaw in this argument, the assumption that there is a 'wrong' answer to matters of opinion. Being able to disagree well is not about admitting that someone else's opinion is 'right', it is about recognising that their deeply-held conviction is just as valid as yours, even when it is diametrically opposite to your own view on the matter being discussed. In some ways, this is even harder to get your head around. Even when the matter in question is one that is subject, in a democratic society, to a vote, the result of that vote does not determine which opinion is 'right', it merely tells us which one has the most supporters at the time the vote was held.
It's more of a problem when an organization pushes a particular view outside of its remit - the ability to even debate the opposite of that view becomes compromised for those without authority and jobs can be lost on it: this particular author has neglected to mention this aspect which was a challenge many times during his tenure. It reminds one that many of these generalized commentaries are disingenuous.
With so much written on this topic by so many, as if it's the underlying issue plaguing universities let alone society at large rather than a distraction, the author does remind one that its worth remembering it's not always so easy to practice what one preaches...