“The terror of commonality lulls the virtues of disagreement”

Around the world, day after day, human beings are being killed by other human beings[1]. Most of us are emotionally affected by this observation – and even more so when such killing happens in our immediate physical or mental vicinity, in some kind of “it could have been me (or: my parents, brothers, sisters, partner, children, friends)” situation. Mostly, I’m assuming, because generally noone wants to be killed or experience the killing of a loved one. Also, maybe, because generally noone wants to be reminded of the fact that we all eventually die – even if not deliberately killed by another human being, but by some accident, illness, or simply through the progress of decay that is inherent in us the moment we’re born[2].

On the global stage of social (and traditional) media, our emotional upheavals translate into billions of reflections and reactions, tinkling, rattling, or thrashing in kaleidoscopic eruptions that are a zillion times more confusing and chaotic than the original event which triggered them. Eiffeltowered peace symbols and tricoloured flag filters flood our timelines[3],  stories and non-stories about what happened, what is happening right now, and what might happen next appear and disappear faster than the little red circles on our news and messaging apps[4], and even those who deliberately don’t comment feel obliged to comment that they deliberately don’t comment[5].

One prevalent theme – among the many that are surfacing – is an appeal to unity, solidarity, and our common humanity, translating into hashtags like #NousSommesUnis, #solidarité (complete with an “é”) or #PrayforHumanity. Now, as much as I sympathise with the underlying idea of commonality across the human race and its implications for how we treat each other[6], the critical portion of my mind keeps bugging me with a concern that I don’t want to ignore: If remembering our commonalities as human beings is seen as an effective antidote to violence, terror, and war, couldn’t that result – and this is my critical mind probing – in people, by some (possibly faulty) syllogism[7], concluding that every difference between us as human beings is a potential seed for violence, terror, and war? And if so, wouldn’t that enhance (rather than reduce) our paranoia about being or feeling different from each other? Wouldn’t, by some weird logical misalignment, the very reminder of harmony become a source for more disharmony?

Yes, yes, and yes. Of course, remembering our common humanity is a good thing. But: It is not sufficient to help us deal with differences, let alone disagreements, conflicts, or outright confrontations. Quite the contrary: We need to become a lot better at experiencing, accepting, living with, enhancing, enjoying, and celebrating our disagreements. Admittedly, this is no ultimate guarantee against  violence, terror, and war either[7]. However, it can be a contribution to non-escalation in the aftermath of experiences of violence, terror, and war – at the very least helping us to not fall into deeper mistrust and further squabbles as we deal with our emotional turmoils.

Practically, dealing with differences or disagreements is not as challenging as it might seem – and it can even be an inspiring endeavour. How so? Here are four questions to ask whenever we find ourselves disagreeing with somebody else:

  1. What if it’s not a problem? Quite often, a disagreement is not a problem at all. Remember the famous story of Jack S. who had to adhere to a fat-free diet, and his wife, who was forced to follow a strict lean-free diet? Amongst the two of them, they had wonderful breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, benefitting from the antagonism between their respective preferences – and lived happily ever after. And even when differences are not as complementary as those of Jack S. and his wife, they are often not problematic at all. Heaven and hell, sky and earth, mountains and beaches, fish and meat, bread and rice, owls and nightingales, bears and bulls, hawks and doves – all those and many more can co-exist in acceptable arrangements of mutual recognition[9]. So maybe it is not a problem if I change my profile picture and you don’t?
  2. What if it can be negotiated? Many disagreements occur because we claim the same time, space, or other resources as somebody else. And, probably more often than not, these seemingly conflicting claims can be brought into a negotiation with a result that is actually satisfying for all parties involved[10]. From parents’  date nights to kids’ media allowances, from traffic lights to flight corridors, from car sharing to curation rotation – all areas of our lives are pervaded by (officially or unofficially) negotiated agreements on how to coordinate our disagreements. So maybe we can negotiate what, when, and how to communicate in a globalised world[11]?
  3. What if it can be reframed? If it still seems to be a problem and if it cannot be negotiated, these are indications that the apparent disagreement might be a different disagreement altogether. Maybe the conflict is not about profile filters or about choice of language, but about what I think you think I think you are because of what you did or said (not necessarily to me or with any reference to myself at all) – or some variation on this interplay of perceptions,  attributions, and (assumed) identities. This very same mechanism is at play when we unfriend (or befriend) somebody because of a single posting (assuming they “are” what they post that very moment), and also when we uncritically “like” everything somebody posts, just because it’s coming from them[12]. So maybe we should all reflect a bit more on how what we say and do relates to who we are (and vice versa)[13]?
  4. What if I change my perspective? Finally, there’s always the holy grail of all struggles – a change in perspective. Not, of course, the other party’s perspective, but our very own perspective. Assuming, at least for a moment, that there’s another way to look at the disagreement – which, at the same time, requires that we depart from some (maybe implicit) beliefs or convictions we hold dear and close to our hearts[14]. Such changes in perspective can topple world views and ideologies, group think and seemingly solid identities, restrictive dimensions, limiting directions, and narrow disambiguations. They set parts of ourselves free that we didn’t even know existed – for good or for bad. So maybe, from time to time, each of us might dare to think hard about what it would take to turn our cherished selves into suicide bombers?

The ability to broaden our view, the willingness to better understand ourselves and others, some good agreements, and the insight that, all too often, being different means nothing else but being different – these are four virtues that help navigate the emotional turbulences brought about when we find ourselves face to face with our own mortality, the fickleness of our human lives, and the unreliability of what we think we can rely on. Of course, these virtues are part and parcel of what makes us human, too. At the same time, they’re much more than a variation on the romantic theme of human sameness: They are a hallmark of the supreme human ability to distance ourselves from ourselves while remaining true to our innermost essence as human beings.

May there be freedom. May there be the vast equality that encompasses all differences. May there be the indestructible commitment to being a human being among human beings[15].


[1] This sentence probably, unfortunately, has some timeless validity. However, right now, it is obviously triggered by the recent events in Paris on November 13, 2015. I consciously refrain from giving any particular sources here, as it will take some time to get to a solid understanding of what happened and what the consequences will be. – The picture featured in this blog post is Francisco Goya’s “El sueño de la razon produce monstruos”, Museo del Prado. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Earlier this year, I wrote about our fear of being reminded. Read more here. BACK TO TEXT

[3] A good piece on the ambivalence of the symbolism of the tricolore is this article by Lucie Kroening [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[4] There’s obviously no point in referring to any specific source here. BACK TO TEXT

[5] My favourite contribution in this category so far is this tweet by @VictoriaHamburg [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] Read more about this in my recent post for Levekunst [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] I wrote about the terror of faulty syllogisms in this post [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] More here [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] On the margins of such co-existence, there are two phenomena to watch out for: Minority domination and militant respect. The phenomenon of “The Dominance of the stubborn minority” – a majority being silently “taken over” by a minority’s preference because of asymmetric preferences (such as everybody eating vegetarian dishes because of the on vegetarian at the dinner party) – has been described masterfully by Nassim Nicholas Taleb here  [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. The phenomenon of militant respect typically takes the form of: “I do respect people who smoke [run around naked, wear pink sneakers, sing dirty songs, post cat pictures etc], as long as they don’t do it in my apartment [next to my beach towel, in my yoga class, in my train carriage, on my timeline etc]” – what looks like a respectful attitude at first easily morphs into militant aggression when (as it unavoidably does) the reference “space” shifts and “my apartment” becomes “my town”, “my country”, “my world”, “my imagination”, “my dreams”, “my universe”. I want to write more about this at some point, so stay tuned. And I do respect if you disagree, of course, just please don’t do it on my blog.   BACK TO TEXT

[10] Of course, all sophisticated tools and methods around negotiation need to be applied – see Harvard’s Program on Negotiation for cutting-edge insights [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] This should not be misunderstood as a call for (hyper-) regulation of communication spaces, but rather as an inspiration to further develop the (official and unofficial) rules by which we exchange our views in today’s multi-faceted media landscape. Maybe it’s time to think about the philosophy, principles, and practical features of an international communications “system” in a way that is informed by previous generations struggles for an international political system (or treatises) or for international economic systems (and treatises) while taking into account what is different about today’s world (as opposed to the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th century). But this is a big question that cannot be dealt with in a footnote. Apologies – I’ll be back on this one. BACK TO TEXT

[12] A propos: An interesting side effect of people on my timelines tricoloring their profile pictures was that, all of a sudden, there was no visible distinction between the senders of all the posts that appeared – the resulting cognitive dissonance made me realise that I actually do read posts from different people in different ways (an assumption I’d have vehemently dismissed had you asked me before November 13, 2015). BACK TO TEXT

[13] Academia and science – prime areas for having heated disagreements while keeping up a fundamental trust in and respect for the opponent (and: Yes, I know that sometimes this is not the case even in these fields, alas) – is a good example for how this reflection can be assimilated and built into the tools and methods of the trade. One of my favourite reflexions on this interplay between society, academia, and individual perspectives is Niklas Luhmann’s “Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft” (1992). BACK TO TEXT

[14] By far the best practical instructions on how to do this can be found in Robert Kegan/Lisa Lahey, “How the way we talk can change the way we work” (2001), chapter 7. The assumptions to adopt and reflect on with regard to our and the other’s perspective suggested there are: “1. There is probable merit to my perspective. 2. My perspective may not be accurate. 3. There is some coherence, if not merit to the other person’s perspective. 4. There may be more than one legitimate interpretation. 5. The other person’s view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view. 6. Our conflict may be the result to of the separate commitments each of us holds, including commitments we are not always aware we hold. 7. Both of us have something to learn from the conversation. 8. We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other. 9. If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interperssonal contradictions (i.e. ‘conflict’) as well. 10. The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning maker”. BACK TO TEXT

[15] The historian in me strongly recommends Wikipedia’s article on “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” for further references [retrieved Nov 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

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