A Quality of Disagreement

This latest election season has left me rather depressed. Where I live is an incredibly safe seat so who I vote for seems farcically irrelevant, though of course I will vote and have been trying to research and think through who it is sensible to vote for. 
The really depressing part of the process, however, has been observing the way we now seem to conduct political debate, disagreement and campaigning, especially on social media. Perfectly lovely friends from across the political divide frequently seem unable to even tolerate a supporter of the other. I have seen wonderful human beings describe others as 'Lizards' for voicing a different political approach. Friends have cleared their entire 'friends' list of those who support a party they feel is destroying the Britain they care about. Emotions run high, and most act out of a desire to change the world for good. Yet we seem incapable of disagreeing with any respect for the other. And that's not even straying into the dark world of trolling and online abuse, such as a tweet directed at my boss recently which hoped she would burn to death with the Muslims she was visiting in a mosque. Never read the comments, but sometimes it's hard not to! 
Social media allows us to, if we choose, only hear from voices that agree with our own. Indeed CNN reported earlier this year that the algorithms that feed us selected content: 
"actually isolates us, creating and facilitating confirmation biases and echo chambers where old -- and sometimes erroneous -- information is just regurgitated over and over again." 
This happens all the time, not only during election season: the places to go where one can really appreciate a good discussion, (and that doesn't have to include agreement or reconciling of views), are fewer and fewer; even university campuses seem to be closing themselves off to multi-vocality, shutting down views they don't like rather than demonstrating their weakness or problems through conversation and thought through argument. Some ideas are abhorrent, but they can be demonstrated as such.
I am beginning to feel like we have ceased to see each other's humanity, and are more comfortable that way because it allows us to dismiss huge swathes of the population, thus saving us from having to listen to their thought processes, or make the effort (and I'm not saying it is always easy) to explain our own. We so often become defensive in the face of what feels like criticism, rather than discussing our differences and trying to understand where they are rooted. 
Over the years I have spent plodding away in the interfaith world, there have been uncomfortable moments when I have heard homophobia, Anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and just plain bigotry. But walking away doesn't change either one of us. Dialogue is not the same as one-upmanship, but understanding those who are different can lead to change.
A simple example of meeting in common humanity when it could have been very different. In 2003, when I was chair of the International Council of Christians and Jews Youth Council, we organised a conference in Amsterdam, and I arrived early to help set up. 3 of our Egyptian participants were also arriving early, and we agreed to meet up and go somewhere for dinner. One young man was a new participant, recommended by one of our veteran Egyptian Muslim teachers and participants. We went out, we ate, we had a nice evening discussing the world. A few days later I received a new piece of information; that this young man was in fact a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. And that he had never met a Jew before, and hadn't been aware when we went to eat that I was one. The fact that we were both missing crucial pieces of each other's biographies meant we were able to have an unfettered meeting, to see each other's humanity, and indeed to learn about one another. In fact, as the recommender of this participant had hoped, he left the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after his experiences with out conference. 
The goal of dialogue isn't necessarily to change the other, but to understand one another's humanity. We don't have to agree, but as a dear Priest friend of mine says, we need to develop a good quality of disagreement. If we can disagree better, it removes the need to prove our rightness through extremist ideologies, and allows people to feel heard and valued, even if their view isn't the one that comes out on top in an election, for example.
Big things are at stake, and people are making choices based on their own self interest as well as the National. I won't offer advice politically, but I do think we need to move forward by working on the ways in which we conduct our disagreements, and work at training ourselves and our society to demonstrate a better quality of disagreement. 


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