The Lost Art of Disagreement


Reblogged from a couple of years ago, because you never saw it before.


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Lately I’ve been disagreeing with people.  Well, more people than usual.  One of the main topics on which I’ve been in disagreeing with people is – disagreeing.  Some disagreements are rather simple.  “The Yankees are better than the Red Sox.”  However, most people can recognize when opinion comes into play, and they can walk away from that and have a beer.  However, other disagreements are based on fact, meaning one person must be right and the other wrong.  The beauty of that situation is when one person eventually realizes that his or her thoughts are inaccurate, and they must now cross over to the other side.  Unfortunately, if the “wrong” one either refuses to acknowledge that one is wrong or lacks the ability to grasp one’s wrongness, then the disagreement isn’t going to be much fun.  What I can’t seem to get anyone to understand is that disagreeing is not only acceptable, but it’s actually quite healthy.  There are two things that prevailing thoughts and attitudes have taken away from us:  the ability to disagree and the right to be wrong.

Before you even have a chance to think about disagreeing with my assessment of disagreeing, let’s keep in mind what disagreement brings.  Without disagreement, the Pilgrims wouldn’t have left Europe.  The colonists wouldn’t have been inspired to rebel.  The Colonial Army wouldn’t have fought so hard.  The North wouldn’t have kicked ass against the South.  There would not have been a reason for the American troops to storm the beaches of Normandy.  Oliver Brown would never have stood up to the Board of Education of Topeka.  If everyone agreed, we would be little more than warm-blooded robots, Stepfords, or Kool-Aid drinkers in line for a cup.

I understand and greatly promote tolerance.  I teach kids to understand that someone who is gay isn’t chasing them, so there’s no need to run away, and that being gay isn’t a choice, and that those who are gay are not as scary as Boy George.  I teach them to understand that the only difference between black, white, Asian, Mid-eastern, Hispanic, and others is that we’ve got different amounts of melanin, languages spoken, and shapes of noses.  I also teach that the only differences between most religions are what our Supreme Being looks like and whether or not to embrace or kill those with a different idea of peace.  There are some disagreements that we must tolerate, but we don’t have to tolerate everything.

One of my more simple disagreements was with a friend of a friend on Facebook.  She had posted a link to a music artist who has had some legal issues involving underage girls.  I then said that I would never listen to any music by that particular person because of those legal issues, which are supported by video evidence.  She then replied with something to the effect that she does not, nor should anyone, ever judge others.  I replied by wondering, “What’s wrong with judging someone who assaults women or beats children?”  She responded very coldly as if I had insulted her, and it escalated into a tennis session of not-so-nice messages.  In one reply she said that I was writing mean comments and making myself “look bad.”  I couldn’t help but answer that it was rather ironic to have someone claim it’s wrong to judge others and then make the judgment that I was making myself look bad by judging others.  Once I pointed that out, the discussion stopped, and just maybe the friend realized her error.

Another friend, in the same week, also wrote about how wrong it is to judge others.  I answered by saying that everyone judges others.  Every time we think about how someone should have done something differently or how we would never do what they have done, we are judging, and that’s okay because judging is also learning.  If a friend is struggling with finances, comes into some extra cash, and blows it all on a birthday party for himself, then I’m going to judge him as irresponsible.  I’m also going to learn to come up with an excuse if he ever asks to borrow money.  If a friend’s child acts up in a restaurant, and she responds by slapping the kid in the face, I’m going to judge her as a poor parent.  That judgment will teach me never to ask her to babysit.

Where judgment goes too far is when we broadcast our thoughts the wrong way.  For several years I’ve been contributing my writing and photography to a literary website.  For years this site had space for people to leave comments about others’ writing, kind of like on these blogs.  Most people wrote rather innocuous and useless comments like, “Great job.  Nice story.  Loved your poem.”  I, however, chose a more practical route, with comments like, “Question mark needs to be inside the quotes.  That’s an adverb, not an adjective.  You need a comma there, not a semicolon.”  Practical and useful comments, in my opinion, are much more valuable than a comment like, “Great story.”

Other writers, not usually the author of the piece for which I had made the comments, were not happy with me.  At first the response to my comments went like this:  “Who are you to tell anyone how to write?  To which I would reply, “I’ve taught English for over 20 years, and I probably know more about language and grammar than anyone you will ever meet.  I’m not bragging.  It’s just a fact.”  To which they would reply with great hatred, spewing insults, accusations, profanity, and a lot of not-niceness.  They would tell me that my comments were cruel and inappropriate.  No matter how much I tried to show them that I very politely showed them their errors, their hatred had gone down a road of no return.  It was like trying to argue with a staunch Right-wing Republican who accused you of Liberalism in a debate, despite your record to the contrary, but he’s forced you to spend your allotted time defending against what did not exist.  I dared and challenged any of them to show me one negative word directed toward any of those writers, but they had already convinced themselves that I was guilty and had no intention of proving themselves wrong.  I had also made the assumption that writers on this particular website were going to eventually submit their work for higher publication, such as something in print, which is a little more prestigious than a website.  If they submit their work, more precise grammar and language will definitely make a better presentation.

Sometimes, like it or not, all of us are wrong, and it is perfectly okay to point it out – politely.  We don’t have to accept kids with “creative spelling,” and you are not entitled to your opinion when you misuse a semicolon.  Wrong is sometimes wrong.  You can invoke the “opinion” clause when you choose either “lightly” or “softly” to describe snowfall in a poem, but your opinion is meaningless when you incorrectly punctuate a compound sentence.  I don’t hesitate to – politely – point out errors in one’s writing for two reasons.  First, I want to protect them from someone who might read that writing and think, “Oh, does this writer know how to punctuate correctly?”  Second, many people, including principals and superintendents, ask me to proofread their work.  I’ll offer to show them not only the corrections but WHY I made those corrections.  They show no interest, other than having a better essay.  They don’t understand that if I show them the rules behind a particular error, then there’s a good chance they won’t make that error the next time.

At work recently I had a “disagreement” with someone who outranks me.  She told me I was “defiant and sarcastic.”  No I wasn’t.  I was disagreeing.  However, when one person outranks the other in a disagreement, you can end up being both right and unemployed.

47 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Disagreement

  1. I quit facebook for the same reason. Eventually, it dawned on me that it’s not my responsibility to correct others who have not solicited my advice, either explicitly or implicitly by posting on a site for that purpose. I’m much happier now.

  2. Hi Rich,
    I’ve never understood why it’s bad to be judgmental. Having the ability to make judgments is one of the big things that sets up apart as a species. Like anything, people sometimes carry it too far, but given the choice between a person who is highly opinionated and a noodle that just accepts everything, I’ll opt for the opinionated person every time. I do think tolerance is important, especially in disagreements over music, literature, movies and art in general. I know a couple in their 40s and they argue over music, what bands are good or suck. It’s a silly argument, because, obviously, opinions vary widely, and music, and art in general, either does it for you or it doesn’t, so arguing about it is kind of silly. Judging an artist for behavior is different. I’ll never patronize Jane Fonda, Robert Blake, Mel Gibson, and a bunch of other artists, some of which I used to like. In general, I think disagreement is healthy, promotes thinking and discussion, and keeps things lively. Some people seem to want to avoid confrontation at any cost and I think that’s unhealthy. I’m glad you re-blogged this and it’s the sort of thing I like to blog about myself. Ron

  3. This is an interesting question. The line between disagreement and judgement is blurry for me.
    I think people who write (and people in general) have a hard time taking unsolicited criticism, but I would probably be both embarrassed and grateful to someone who gave me editing advice I didn’t ask for. My background is in finance not English though, so I need an editor or a new degree. I agree that it is the best way to grow and learn.
    You’ve made me think with this post. And I think I might have judged you too harshly recently instead of just agreeing to disagree. I’d still maintain that the more sensitive the topic, the more care one should put into the delivery of any opinion or criticism.

      • Hahaha!
        I responded to a comment you left on The Outlier Collective, then wrote a post about body image on my own blog.
        I’ve followed you for some time, but I’d never commented before. It wasn’t really harsh, I’m just not a confrontational person, so I felt bad about it, especially since I don’t know you and you obviously don’t know me.
        This comment made me laugh though, so thanks!

      • i had commented on two different posts there regarding women, and both seemed to have been very much misinterpreted. however, after re-reading what had happened a few days after, i was able to see how i had poorly worded my thoughts, so i understood why i was immediately scolded. however, that didn’t excuse those who referred to my attempts to explain as “defensive lies.” then a few people checked out my blog, found fiction about a mentally unstable man who was also a rapist, and then scolded me for supporting rape. they didn’t care that it was fiction. they made their judgements and were sticking with them.

        but clearly you were not one of those people, and i greatly thanking you for saying what you’ve said. especially because i have been blocked from posting on that site. but here’s the funny part – i am one of the reasons that site exists in the first place. i had been writing certain things that the owner of that site had seen and wondered why i had not been freshly pressed. then came the idea to create a new site for the “outliers,” those who are in an alternative direction and not getting mainstream attention.

        so it’s kind of ironic that i’m blocked from a site that i helped create. go figure.

      • I watched the first round of discussion during feminism week alternating between fascination and horror at some of the comments. Although it’s been a few weeks, for that one, I thought you started an interesting conversation even though I didn’t agree with all that you said. I also didn’t agree with all that was said to you, but when people feel passionately about a subject it can get out of hand quickly.
        I don’t think anyone should be judged as a person based on works of fiction. That should a be space to explore points of view that are not a reflection of our own. Otherwise it would be labeled non-fiction.
        I did get emotional at the way you presented your views on the issue of obesity and body image, and although I stand by the gist of my reply, and explained my reaction a little more in the follow up post, it was a little more personal and pointed than I would normally make any comment. Also, responding after you’d been blocked seemed chickenshit after I thought about it more.
        As for being blocked, since it is not my web space, and I consider both bloggers behind that site friends, I won’t question the decision. If you haven’t told them that you can see how your responses may have been poorly worded in hindsight, I think it would go a long with them. It did for me anyway!
        Regardless, I felt guilty about my words after reading them back and after cooling off, and I wanted to let you know (even though it doesn’t seem to have bothered you as much as it bothered me, if you even noticed at all). HA!
        Take care!
        I’ll probably go back to quietly lurking now.

      • i’m proud to know that i might be someone you would choose to “lurk.” lurk at. near. around. here.

        thanks for that thorough explanation and adding to my understanding of what happened.

  4. Excellent post. I recently took a composition pedagogy class and was saddened to realize how much the art of rhetoric has been bastardized. We do nothing but attack each other, use logical fallacies, and invest our ego where it has no place.

    Gone are the days of collegial debate and it truly is sad. All we have now are groups of people who pat each other on the back and shill for ideas based on belief rather than facts and evidence.

    All the best…

  5. Prejudice is a prerequisite of knowledge. It gives room for context and interpretation. Whether people would like to admit it or not, thinking and comprehending something contains judgement already. Your choice to perceive and understand it one way over the other is proof of that. The sooner people accept that judgments are inevitable, the more open they become towards disagreements.

    I wish most English teachers were like you. I’ve had luck with a few but the rest were just a struggle to listen to. I say that in the sincerest and least impolite manner I can think of.

  6. Glad you reblogged. I face this all the time when I am trying to correct people’s vocabulary and pronunciation. Okay, so I am not a teacher or equally great with grammar but who doesnt know how to pronounce ‘bowl’ anyway. But then you are made fun off as someone who only knows to boast or worse even – keep your knowledge upto you.
    Okay, I coolly suggest some site to refer to and then come back to me so that I can kick you hard.
    Disagreeing is all the more good, I believe, if you don’t keep it in but give it to them, subtly though.

  7. Ironically, I couldn’t agree more…. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing, but there is certainly a wrong way to disagree, and also a wrong way to handle being disagreed with. Sadly, in my experience most people have little interest in ever practicing being disagreed with.

  8. I don’t disagree with your assessment of disagreement as a good thing, but I do disagree with your use of wars as proof that disagreeing is good. There are better examples in my opinion. Examples that don’t involve massive loss of life.

    • i see what you mean. on the surface, it looks like i’m saying war is a good thing as a by-product of disagreement. but what i was really going for was to say that because of disagreement, we stopped hitler, we stopped slavery, and we created a new and beautiful country. maybe it should be worded better, but that’s really what i was going for.

      thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      • Adam, the question here is not disagreement per se, but whether and how it is voiced. In the ancient world, it was generally agreed that slavery was good, since it was a byproduct of one’s inferiority, Certainly some of the slaves disagreed, but until some of the enslaving people disagreed and said so, nothing was going to change.

  9. Well done, I could try to agree more though I would fail. Disagreement is healthy when done in a way that isn’t hurtful or ugly. I recently had to add a disclaimer to my FB page, essentially it says, “this is my house, you are welcome to disagree with me as long as you are respectful and do so with a modicum of civility.”

    I post a great amount on politics, I like the debate. I admit I like to stir the hornet nest.

    As to those who grow angry at you for offering up writing edits, they should be ashamed. I would take it in a hot minute.

  10. In sporting fashion I want to start off by saying you are all wrong!

    But you aren’t. The Art of disagreement is lost in our culture. And I am a firm believer the making judgments is actually good self-care indicative that one knows oneself. I have married friends that say “we never fight.” I contend that they don’t truly know one another and don’t trust their partners enough. You can imagine how well that goes over.

    I recently joined a website where other writers review and comment on your work and overall you get the “great story” critiques. I joined wanting the grammatical, contextual criticism as I see this as the only way I can become better. One day I ended up in a philosophical disagreement over the existence of a higher being with an atheist. He even became uncomfortable thinking we were fighting. I assured him we were not. To me the sparring was the most fun I had in quite some time. To listen, to hear and to see something through another’s eyes is the ultimate reward to healthy disagreements. I’ll fight with you anytime Rich and bring on as many harsh writing critiques as you’re willing to spare. I can take it.

    • sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it. if you used a comma where there should have been a period, i would probably just say, “comma should be a period because otherwise it’s a run-on sentence.” just simple and to the point. i would never write, “what the hell is wrong with you for putting a comma here? don’t you know what a run-on sentence is?” but people would react as if that’s what i had said. some writers – and to me, it’s mainly lesser writers – treat their writing like it’s their child. i think better writers understand that we all make mistakes and nobody knows everything. better writers know and expect and even hope for certain comments that are designed not to criticize but to help improve something.

    • i used to be on a site like that, wish i could remember the name of it. eventually, i realized it was all about people trying to improve their own “social standing” by having higher ratings and rankings. the more stories they read (even if their comments were useless) the more they rose in the rankings. very often their comments were either “great story” or the opposite, highly and overly critical in ways that seemed lacking in thought. it was as if they were trying to chase people away who were writing well because those good writers were a threat to their own rankings. it was quite silly, once i realized how it worked.

  11. I could really use the comments about my grammar or punctuation – one of the reasons I even started my blog was to learn to write better. As for disagreements, I’ve been trying to avoid them as much as I can, knowing that while I can find something to disagree on with anyone, there is usually no point in actually voicing it. About 99% of the time the disagreement is based on the interpretation of the facts rather than facts themselves, and few people are ever willing to change their interpretations.

    • Please feel completely free to ask any questions about grammar or anything else. And if you have anything you are writing and want like it looked at, provided it is not the length of a novel, feel free to email it to me.

    • someone once posted that women do not have enough statues in their honor, too many are of men, which is true. i had no disagreement. so i commented and asked, “can you give me your top 10 women who you think deserve statues?” i was just asking the writer for women she admired and thought should be at the forefront of that list. unfortunately, my question was instead interpreted as if i was daring or challenging the writer to come up with 10 women who deserve statues, as if i were saying it’s not possible to find 10 women. holy crap, the firestorm i was hit with was amazing. the insults i was hit with were horrible. when i tried to explain my original intent, i was simply told that i was lying just to cover myself. never saw such a reaction and misinterpretation before.

      • Honestly, your wording of the question does kind of sound like a dare. For someone who is tuned to pick out signs of misogyny and male chauvinism, your question definitely appears to imply that there aren’t 10 women deserving a statue.
        I don’t think that a less-than-perfect wording should result in insults either, but that’s how we humans roll. It’s much more fun to get outraged immediately, than spend a minute pondering the meaning of the question. I’ve done my share of poorly-worded comments myself (this might be another one), but have never gotten the same reaction, so far.

      • oh, no doubt that i worded it poorly, but as you said, that doesn’t excuse a vicious response, especially after i attempted to explain and reword my question.

  12. I like this post very, very much, for several reasons:
    1) I now have a direction in which to point other people when they express profound confusion when I admit that I was wrong;
    2) I absolutely agree that constructive criticism is more useful than “good story”, even if that validation feels better;
    3) You’ve presented a unique perspective on judging that I’ve never heard before, but I feel that it’s valid and incredibly useful in addition to highlighting the fact that colloquial understanding of the word “judge” has become very narrow; and
    4) Yes. Sometimes, there is a right answer.

    Thank you so much for posting (or re-posting this).

  13. The art of debate is definitely dying, if it hasn’t already died, here in the UK. I don’t watch Prime Minister’s Question Time but apparently it’s a shambles these days.

    If I had made a grammatical error or a typo in a piece of writing, especially if I was considering submitting it for publication, then I would appreciate someone telling me about it. But there are ways of doing so – if someone is gentle with it, and says something like “it’s a good story, but I noticed some grammar mistakes, you need to look at x, y and z” then that goes down far better than being told bluntly “You made X, Y and Z grammatical errors”. Your comments that you have referred to in your post show that you explained how it should be written, which means you’re not just pointing out the errors, you’re actually trying to help the writers in question, which can go a long way to ensuring an ego isn’t battered (even if it does get perhaps a minor bruise).

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