Fostering Community Amongst Disagreement

During Sunday's Democratic town hall on CNN, Vermont senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, was asked about friendships across the political divide. He responded honestly, and humorously, that he and Republican senator Jim Inhofe were friends. Immediately following, cynical tweets mocking Sanders for being friends with someone so different arose.

Yet what Sanders demonstrated that evening is a lesson that we need to hear. We need to learn to have community amongst disagreement. Community can still be cultivated, and even flourish, amongst disagreement.

This article will be co-written with my friend, Ben Crenshaw. Ben and I have known each other for a few years. As I was finishing graduate school, Ben was starting. Ben and I disagree on many things - philosophical, theological, and certainly political. If measured, the amount that we disagree on would far outweigh the subjects to which we agree. Yet we remain friends, and I like to say that I'm a better person and thinker because of Ben's thoughtful engagement with me.

Many times people from opposite perspectives are brought together to debate, the results of which leaves people further entrenched in their position. I suggested that Ben write with me on what we learn from each other across the divide (I will write the first section, and Ben will follow). The disagreements that polarize our society our great, but not greater than the important things that help us unite. What follows are some tidbits on what Ben & I have learned from each other.

It seems to me that those on the opposite side (left/right, Republican/Democrat, theist/atheist, etc.) view each other as opponents rather than colleagues and friends. When we do this we tend to objectify the other person, viewing them as less worthy. This creates an enemy mentality and we become hostile towards each other.

When an oppositional framework is used, we tend not to discover the reasons why there is disagreement. The pursuit of justice is so damn difficult because of our competing, subjective perspectives. In order to overcome this, we need to first listen to the reasons why others may have different perspectives. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the other person that they have substantive reasons for their perspective fosters respect and relation. Learning from others is impossible if we do not listen and only resort to our prejudices about what we think others believe.

From this, what I've learned from Ben is that friendship can deepen amongst disagreement. Ben has always viewed me with great respect, and I have always strived to return that respect. The pejorative labels that opposites place upon each other negate the humanity in us. More to the point, labels are constructed. They mean nothing. Ben is one of the more conservative people I know. If I applied the same labels to Ben that many liberals place on conservatives (and vice versa) then I would never be able to move past those constructs and see Ben for the caring person he is.

The quantity of what Ben and I disagree about is greater than we agree. However, what I've come to understand is measuring agreement and disagreement is not the most important factor. Despite our disagreements, Ben and I often have the same goals. We pursue justice, love, truth. The particulars on how we get there are quite different, but we look for those unifying factors. If we take the time to recognize that each of us, no matter if we're liberal or conservative or how we vote, are part of the same human community and grant each other respect, then our society would be much less contentious.

Ben Crenshaw (visit his website):

Having beneficial conversations with those you disagree with can be a challenging task. To facilitate such dialogue, the first lesson I learned is that regardless of the positions others take, they almost always have reasons for believing what they do. Few people think or act in truly irrational ways. I may strongly disagree with their reasons, but that doesn't mean they lack a rationale for what they believe. In my conversations with Michael, he never failed to have reasons for his convictions.

Knowing this can help us understand two other important facts. First, that the other person's reasons are usually different from our own, and second, that if their reasons are the same as ours, they have usually prioritized some reasons as being more important than others. Although two people might share the same convictions that speaking the truth and loving others are both important, each person might differently emphasize one over the other.

Secondly, once we realize that those who disagree with us are just like us in that they are thinking and reasoning to come to their beliefs, this can greatly help us respect them. Although we should we respect every person as an individual uniquely created, it is all too easy to think less of a person if you strongly oppose the causes they most love. Yet when we realize that they are using their God-given intellectual and affective abilities to work through complex problems and propose solutions, we realize that they are not much different than ourselves. Again, this need not require that we minimize the real disagreements we might have, but respect is critically important.

Michael and I have sought to respect each other even in the midst of heated disagreements. If one of us fell short, we were quick to apologize and seek each other's forgiveness. Respecting the other even while objecting to their beliefs is also important in helping to distinguish between the person on the one hand, and their ideas on the other. Such a distinction makes it possible to affirm and love the person, even if you strongly disagree with their reasoning. Only by holding to an unwavering commitment of respecting the other will you ever hope to achieve constructive dialogue, mutual understanding, and the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and convince others of your position.

Finally, I've come to realize that fundamental differences usually come down to different beliefs about the nature of reality (Is there a God? Should government be limited? Am I responsible for my neighbor? and so forth). If we were to put ourselves in the shoes of those who believe differently than we do, and adopt their foundational beliefs about the world, we might find that the conclusions they come to actually make sense. This will help us realize that they are neither careless nor stupid; they simply have a different starting point and use different reasons than we do that lead them to hold the values, principles, and convictions they do. Attempting to see the world from their eyes can also be an opportunity for us to reexamine our own assumptions and presuppositions, and by doing so engage in thoughtful introspection.

If we were to be more charitable in our speech and dialogue, and if we were to realize that those who disagree with our views are themselves thoughtful persons with fundamental convictions different than our own, then we would undoubtedly find genuine respect and conversation possible. Only then can we avoid the dangers of groupthink and develop the intellectual virtues and character formation that comes from engaging with diverse views.

By this we will also come to view our "opponents" not as enemies but as companions - companions that are seeking truth and love as we are, and from whom we can learn a great deal. When we reach this point we will find that real understanding and agreeable solutions are possible, and perhaps love and friendship as well.