Disagreement is personal

Disagreement is difficult and costly. When you disagree with someone on some matter of fact or policy, you’re alleging by implication that they’re mistaken. Whatever the source, the accusation of being mistaken stings–it suggests you have failed at a cognitive task and, importantly, that you are unaware of that. So you’ve failed at two cognitive tasks. There are polite ways to communicate this, but in the end they amount to the same thing: you’re right, they’re wrong. You’re passing judgment on them, as people. It’s personal.

Too often, sadly, people do not appreciate this. An example from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman writes:

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

This disagreement with Trump, obviously directed at Trump supporters, is more than a matter of what kind of pizza is best. This disagreement concerns matters of fact and policy. Zimmerman thinks p, the Trump supporters think not-p or q. More than that, Zimmerman implies that supporters of Trump are susceptible to demagoguery and excuse, justify, or embrace bigotry. They’re mistaken in horrible and dangerous ways. That’s a pretty harsh judgment on them.

Despite such judgments, Zimmerman continues:

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

Aren’t bigotry, demagoguery, and the corroding of public discourse an attack on the values presumably shared by academic historians? Let’s say they are. More importantly, Zimmerman shares HAT’s harsh judgment of Trump (and by implication his many supporters). In fact, let’s rephrase the last clause in light of this:

. . . which enjoin us to understand diverse communities [which are] warped or deluded.

Now he basically agrees with them. They even say as much:

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.

To me it seems obvious that the historians are concerned, at this stage, to convince the Trump supporters that they’re mistaken and that their (and his) ideas are antithetical to a truth-based civil society. Figuring out just why these ideas have traction, understanding their appeal in other words, is secondary question. You can’t figure out why someone is a bigot without first concluding that they’re a bigot.

6 thoughts on “Disagreement is personal”

  1. “…it suggests you have failed…”
    Wrong.
    It assumes you want to be correct. But low self-esteemers interpret it incorrectly.
    Blogger, heal thyself!
    …Peace and Love

  2. The official premise you posit is that disagreement is an attack on the ego, therefore when one is told that they are wrong they feel threatened. Sounds plausible, Lets assume that it is true. Here is the question: which hurts more an attack to the ego or bullheaded ignorance? (Just to clarify I think the scope of debate on this should be limited to strongly held opinions as facts you know that you don’t know are not ego linked.) So let’s hold up two strawmen and set them to fight (both based on simplified positions you appear to hold):

    Strawman 1: Debate allows you to understand your position and to articulate it building confidence.

    Strawman 2: Debate is an attack on your opponent and may hurt his confidence.

    The problem with both strawmen is that they assume confidence is a good thing. Strawman 2 however is worse in that it promotes ignorance as opposed to Strawman 1’s promotion of rhetoric(which although valuable is not necessarily truth). There was a recent episode of hidden brain on narcissism which has relevance to this debate. One of the points is that high school students who are told that they can do anything become disillusioned when they find out that they cannot. This I would think is a greater blow to the ego.

  3. Hi Ben,

    I’m not sure what view you think I’m advocating here, but let me try to reiterate what I was saying.

    Criticism of a view held by a person necessarily implies the person holding has failed in some way. That’s just a fact. It’s going to be painful to them to point that out. So, I conclude, Zimmerman shouldn’t worry about insulting people’s feelings, as that’s the nature of argument, and he’s already done it.

    Question: what’s an “official premise.”?

  4. I agree That Zimmerman shouldn’t worry about insulting people’s feelings, but that point is not at all obvious, as I thought you were arguing the opposite.

    As for “official premise,” that is the stated premise that you are arguing which I thought was that “Argument hurts feelings”, and which would be contrasted with an implied premise which is not stated or argued but used to either support the given arguments or lead the listener to assume and I thought to be “hurting peoples feelings is bad.”

    Rereading this post I have trouble finding fault with my original reading. You say “Disagreement is difficult and costly.” You did not say it was a price worth paying.

    My position is simple, disagreement may be difficult and costly, but sometimes it is worth it.

  5. Then I suppose we agree.

    Maybe I was unclear on that score–but I guess I take it for granted that argument is worthwhile (considering this is a site devoted to that topic).

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