‘I think you’re wrong’ – why disagreement is so important

The other week I attended an event at the Houses of Parliament on the thorny issue of poverty.  Iain Duncan Smith was the key note speaker and there was a room packed full of experienced people who knew a lot about the subject. 

I thought IDS spoke well, but despite the auspicious surroundings and a great turn out the event was very frustrating.  Why?  Because in the two hours of the meeting there was not one word of proper disagreement, contradiction or meaningful debate.

It was due to the way that the meeting was structured.  As is often the case the amount of speeches should have been halved and the time for questions and answers doubled.  But also, with a subject like poverty you need to line up people who are prepared to disagree and contradict each other.  This is an issue which matters and we should not be shy of passionate debate.  It should be controversial.  But instead of provocation, we heard platitudes and everyone nodding their heads in meaningless agreement.

The energy of real debate

It was an example of the importance of disagreement to provide energy in a discussion.  This is true in both political and theological debate where everyone needs their views challenged and shaken if they want to truly grow.  This is why people enjoy speeches or sermons which challenge them – because they produce an energy for change – especially when you don’t agree with 100% of what you are hearing.  It’s so important to avoid the deadening conformity of getting stuck in a circle of people where everyone agrees. 

The French theologian Jacques Ellul summed this up well in an essay Dialectic in the book What I Believe:

‘Negativity is essential, for if the positive remains alone, it is unchanged, stable and inert… for example, an unchallenged society, a force without counterforce, a person engaged in no dialogue, an unstimulated professor, a church without heretics, a sole party without rivals, is enclosed within the permanent repetition of its own image. 

It will be satisfied with what it has done thus far and will see no reason to change…the only thing that can bring about change or evolution is contradiction, challenge…this factor carries with it the transformation of the situation.’   

I think this principle is true across all walks of life.  A healthy culture in workplaces, churches, political parties, clubs, conferences – and even in families and between couples – depends on those involved being able to disagree well.  Positive growth and change simply do not come through everyone agreeing all the time.

Sadly, a cocktail of our national temperament, niceness and soppy theology means that churches and Christian charities in the UK are often riddled by a brittle, unassertive culture where people are afraid of proper debate.  It’s not healthy.  Its essential that we learnt to discuss issues assertively without rupturing relationships – but we need to remember that Jesus was never afraid to disagree.  He knew you can’t cleanse a temple without turning over some tables.

PS: Let’s have some comments which contradict me!

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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15 Responses to ‘I think you’re wrong’ – why disagreement is so important

  1. Annie Weatherly-Barton says:

    Well I agree with what is written and am hoping that there are a couple of typos or I would have to disagree with:
    This is an issue which matters and we should be shy of passionate debate. (?)

    I do sincerely hope not!!! I’m guessing this is a typo and if not I’ll need you to explain why you said it?
    As for good, healthy debate well I’m with you all the way. I think it is easier for men than women to debate. A man will “debate” and be called “assertive” and woman debates and we’re called “aggressive.” Just how it is in most quarters. Only one place where I have ever been where you could debate and have really great discussion was at the Urban Theology Unit with John Vincent. In all my 60 years I have never really known another place that so encompasses the knowledge and wisdom of all as UTU.

    As for having a debate at the Houses of Parliament with I. D. S. well it doesn’t surprise me. Fill people’s heads with their right wing chatter. They were hardly going to allow anyone with experience challenge them, were they? They are in power and they listen to no one.

    It would be good if we could challenge the systems in all places of our lives but it hardly ever happens in real life. I spent seven years working with and supporting students with disabilities in a university supporting those students and student supporters who were being bullied by the management. Management did nothing but colluded in the bullying. Many staff had to sick leave because of the bullying that went on – it was relentless! – including myself.

    Many churches cannot cope with healthy debate. It would be good but sadly hardly ever happens without causing resentment. In this current economic climate however we may find ourselves HAVING to stand up against the ever growing tide of greed and selfishness by the minority whilst the poorest and most vulnerable decline into utter poverty. Debate might not matter then when we are truly confronted by the results of the evil perpetrated for the few on the masses.

  2. Annie Weatherly-Barton says:

    Ooh now I’ve done it meself!!! That last line should read ‘Debate might not matter then when we are truly confronted by the results of the evil perpetrated BY THE FEW on the masses.

  3. jason says:

    Challenge is a wonderful idea, Jonnie, but it takes confidence and guts. To give yourself permission to say what you genuinely believe is a difficult thing to do. In the office, it can result in you losing opportunities for promotion; in friendships it can see you lose mates; and in society, depending on your views it can see you being castigated or ridiculed.

    But I also think there’s something of a national trait as well. Overall, I think most of us in the UK are liberals – even if our politics are conservative. We may not agree with somebody’s point of view, but we do strongly believe in their right to have it. And as such, we’re more likely to defend their rights to an opinion, than to tell them that it’s wrong or fatuous.

    I’m not convinced that people agree with everything they hear around them. Rather, I reckon they let things slide because they don’t passionately disagree with it and therefore don’t feel motivated enough to take a stand. A stand that will invariably come with consequences.

  4. ianchisnall says:

    I agree with you that the energy which leads to finding creative solutions is rooted in looking at isues from many different directions, more or less simultaneously. I am not sure that this depends on disagreement per se, but it is certainly a familiar component. If I was in IDS position (or indeed any cabinet minister) I would be concerned if I was not being constantly challenged. Surely his think tank is meant to be full of people who take different points of view. The reason why I get I find watching Parliament boring is not that they all agree with each other, but rather the basis for their disagreement seems childish and that when they say they are having a debate, they are in fact simply posturing and preening their ideas.

  5. Jon Kuhrt says:

    Thanks Jase and Ian – yes, I was going in for a bit of polemic to get discussion going. I think the word ‘disagreement’ sounds divisive or angry – whereas I guess the key skill is being able to give a counter view in a way which tackles the issue concerned rather than the person.

    Jase, I think you’re right that it take confidence and guts and I guess we do have to pick our battles. But I do get concerned about cultures whether at work or with mates, where people are not really saying what they mean but then will criticise the person behind their back. Friendships and work relationships thus stagnate due to fear rather than grow and develop healthily.

    • jason says:

      I guess it’s an observation of behaviour rather than an endorsement.

      It’s interesting, the people that do stand-up and have an opinion – the Hilda Ogdens / Pauline Fowlers / Mary Whitehouses / Jeremy Clarkson / Tony Benns etc – are either viewed as cantankerous battle-axes, one-trick-ponys or simply reviled for stopping the fun of others. We don’t seem to like people that rock the boat or cause a kerfuffle – especially if its us.

      As for talking behnd people’s back….you’ve know I’ve always liked you Jonnie……

      • Jon Kuhrt says:

        thanks pal – am loving the global feedback from Oz! You are right about people who stand up for things being seen in that light – am loving the rich mix of people you picked. I guess people like Desmond Tutu get it about right – years of oppression and death threats and he always seemd to be smiling…

      • Jon Kuhrt says:

        BTW, Jase, i have not forgotton the incident with the baked beans at uni – you didn’t like me much then – and I was innocent – it was all Howarth’s fault!

  6. Neil BIles says:

    I think it was Lord Soper (Methodist minister who when alive used to be at speakers corner Hyde Park) said “when you learn to disagree you can learn to agree” what he was saying was that it is in the debate that we learn other’s view points which should influence our own whether in confirming or challenging our own views but with an openenss that may take us to a new place. It think it is in the listening that debate starts and having a passion for life for a particular topic. But often debate is seen as conflict. We need to think of debate as healthy discussion. Too many of us don’t stop to listen to people in our eveyday lives, at home, at work. I beleive that Jesus listened first before the debate/ discussion with people, he was not there for an argument (accept in the temple) but to share a truth for others to test out for themselves after dialogue had taken place. I have always been taught the God gave us two ears and month to use in those proportions. There’s a thought. Listen frist then speak with passion but be prepared to be open to change.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks Neil – some great wisdom there in your comments and good balance. Its a great thing to combine care in listening along with a passion for change. Ilove the Soper quote – as I now have Soper’s old office at West London Mission perhaps his love of debate is affecting me…

  7. Byron B. says:

    Great post Jon. As I’ve been dealing with governments departments and schools around the issue of child abuse there’s a common strand that comes through all of it.

    People want to protect the relationships they have with people around them, and their place socially – and this becomes the primary reason why problems are not solved, and kids remain in danger.

    And so it goes for most of society’s problems.

    The only way around it is to speak openly, because there’s lots of people who actually feel the same way, and are afraid to speak out. Those that speak out give courage to other people to tackle the harder issues – it can be surprising how much ‘hidden consensus’ exists if the right conduit become available for people to express their feelings.

    Cheers Jon, keep it up.

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  9. Greg says:

    Yes I agree a good robust disagreement or row or in possh terms dialectic is essential in politics and a good Christian model too… I’ve been having a go at doing this recently on my new blog http://theprimitiveranter.blogspot.co.uk .. Personally though I find it easier to have a good rant in writing than face to face… like many Christians I don’t like conflict let alone personalising it… and it’s hard to do without getting angry and being unkind… And even in writing I find if people critique me or put the opposite view then we end up with movement towards a middle or “yes but” position..

    But lets strat with clear articulation of convictions .. that’s what made Tony Benn and even Maggie such interesting politicians..

    One other thing and this is pertinent to conversations with IDS… let’s make sure the voices of the poorest and those who suffer from his policies are heard.. Don’t talk about us without us is a good motto. I did find it a bit shocking that Eden Network of all people invited IDS to present their urban hero awards… There are many urban heroes I know who would barely care to spit at him.

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