Argue Better | Dealing with Disagreement (YouTube Script)
Take a deep breath in…and out… Today’s topic is working through disagreements.
In his book The Philosophy of Rhetoric, I.A. Richards called rhetoric a study of “misunderstanding and its remedies.” Whether you’re writing an argument paper for a class or just trying to decide what to do with your friends over the weekend, you’ve probably encountered a disagreement or two. Luckily, rhetoric provides the kind of understanding and skills that can help us to work productively with people—even and especially when we disagree. So, whether you’re looking to write a stronger argument or just finalize your weekend plans, here are seven rhetorical principles to help you deal with disagreement.
Principle 1: Disagreement is normal and expected
Longtime fans of the show will know that rhetoric is whatever we do to get people on the same page. There are probably as many different opinions out there as there are people—by default, we just aren’t usually on the same page as other people. That’s just a fact of life more than a reason to freak out.
Rhetoric is ancient, and, at least in the western world, its roots can be traced to the challenges faced in the Greek democratic system. Without a king to just tell people what to do and force them to fall in line, the ancient Greeks had to figure out how to get people on the same page so that their democratic society could function.
In the many years since, rhetoric continues to serve as a way to work productively with people who see the world in different ways.
So, in the same way that we don’t need to live in fear of melted ice cream because we have invented freezers, we don’t need to worry about disagreements when they happen because we’ve figured out how to deal with them. If you have good rhetorical know-how, you take disagreements in stride.
Principle 2: Beliefs and Opinions are Rooted in People’s Experience
Why are disagreements such a normal part of everyday life? Because people’s everyday lives are different.
Think about it like this: imagine your friend has a favorite restaurant, and they really want to take you there on Saturday. It’s the best, they say: my family goes there every year on New Year’s Day for brunch. They have amazing food—and, get this—if you tell them it’s your birthday, you get free waffles!
Well, you don’t really want to go to that restaurant. You’ve been there before: the last time you went was the day you got dumped, the day all that maple and butter turned to ash in your mouth. Your friend is clearly excited about going there, but you’re just not on board.
The disagreement here has absolutely nothing to do with the objective qualities of the restaurant. For both you and your hypothetical friend, it’s the same building with the same menu and the same waitstaff and everything. The difference is not in the restaurant—but in your respective experiences of that restaurant.
It would be ineffective and hurtful for your friend to say, Don’t be stupid, it’s an objectively great restaurant—all the reviews online are positive, let’s just go. For you, it’s not about the reviews—it’s about what happened there. And the same could be said for your hypothetical friend—their excitement has more to do with the experiences and memories they had there than with anything else.
So remember that—disagreements are almost never actually about the facts. You can’t just resolve a disagreement by throwing facts at your audience: they know the facts, but they experience those facts differently. If you really want to work through a disagreement, you need to understand how your audience experiences those facts to understand why their opinion is different from yours.
You also need to be prepared to respect their experiences: it would be an act of supreme arrogance to write an argument telling people they’re wrong and stupid for disagreeing with your perspective. They surely have good reasons for their opinions, and those opinions are based in their experiences in the world. You don’t know their experience better than they do.
So start by understanding where your audience is coming from—and then decide how you can get them on the same page while still respecting them and their experiences. Otherwise, they’re not going to listen.
Principle 3: A Different Opinion is Not Necessarily a Wrong Opinion—Just a Different One
Have you ever spent much time looking at those maps that show the different words that people use across the United States? Maybe you’re a person who says pop while another says soda—or maybe you’re someone who calls every carbonated soft drink coke. While people across the country have different words for the same thing; nobody could seriously say that any of those words is wrong. If you’re a pop person and someone asks for a soda, you don’t wrinkle up your nose and tell them they’re using the wrong word. Chocolate cake is the wrong word for a fizzy drink—soda is just a different word for a fizzy drink.
By and large, the kinds of things we disagree about are not matters of absolute right and wrong, even if we like to act like they are. And that’s important to remember because it keeps things in perspective. The people who disagree with you aren’t evil monsters who cling to falsehood and manipulate the weak. They’re just people who have lived different lives, have different experiences, and, consequently, hold different opinions.
Now, to say that different opinions are just different is not to say that all opinions are equally good. Some are probably better than others: if we didn’t think some ideas were better, we wouldn’t try to get people on the same page, and we wouldn’t need rhetoric. We would just let people do whatever they want. When I say that different opinions are just different, I don’t mean that any attempt at persuading someone is a waste of time.
What I do mean is that your job is not to exterminate the opposition—it’s to help people see their experiences in a new and better light. Rhetoric isn’t about good guys destroying bad guys—it’s about regular people who have differences working together to achieve shared goals.
Principle 4: Agreement Supersedes Disagreement
Opposites have a lot of things in common. For example, cold and hot are opposites because they are both measures of temperature. Hot and empty are not opposites because they don’t have enough in common—hot is about temperature and empty is about physical capacity. There are too many differences to make any comparison.
A lot of the disagreements we face work the same way. We see people on the other side of an issue as our opposite—as a group of people who are so different from us that we’ll never get along. But that’s not only counterproductive—it’s flat-out wrong. The fact is, if you find yourself on opposite sides of an issue, you actually have more in common than you think.
Most people who make grilled cheese sandwiches, for example, probably butter the bread before toasting the sandwich. But there are people out there who use mayonnaise instead, applying it to the outside of the sandwich and then putting it in the pan. The butter and mayonnaise camps are on opposite sides of the issue—but they have much more significant commonalities than differences: both parties are in favor of browned, crispy grilled cheese sandwiches. They use different means to accomplish that goal, but they have same goal. Rather than fight about butter vs. mayonnaise, these two groups could instead decide to have productive conversations about golden-brown bread.
Kenneth Burke once said, “Are things disunited in ‘body’? Then unite them in ‘spirit’” In the grand scheme of grilled cheese, the practical difference of using mayonnaise or butter can be worked through by appealing to a higher commonality—the goal of crispness. Or with another person, you might disagree about a practice—and you might even disagree about your goal—but you can find common ground in shared values. Wherever you can find an opposition, you’ll discover that you have much more in common than not—and those similarities can be leveraged to work through the difficult issue.
Principle 5: Be Willing to Be Wrong
If you’re going to invest in the rhetorical process of working through a difficult issue with someone else to get on the same page, you have to be willing to be wrong. Of course, you’ll go in with the conviction that what you have to say is better—you wouldn’t be saying anything otherwise. But, if you are going to tell your audience that their perspective is limited, you have to be willing to recognize that yours is too. Just as their position is rooted in their experience, so is yours. Your proposal might be the best possible course of action based on what you know—but you might not have the whole picture. In fact, you probably don’t have the whole picture.
The rhetorical process is one of making arguments, sharing ideas, interpreting facts, and working towards a shared understanding of a situation and the best course of action. If you are genuinely engaged in the process of getting everyone on the same page—and I mean the same page, not necessarily your page—it’s very possible that your position will change over time. If you’re writing a paper, for example, and you start with one thesis statement and then end up with a different thesis statement after doing research and working through your argument, that’s a good thing.
It’s pretty crass to go around acting like you know everything. If you think you have an issue figured out before you even start working through it with other people, you’re not going to get very far in resolving the disagreement. It’s not a good idea to commit to your position too early, but it’s wise to leave room for your views to change and develop as you work through the process.
Of course, I’m not saying that you need to go into a situation ready to abandon all your ideals. There may be things that are very important to you, that you are unwilling to compromise. There’s nothing wrong with that. You should have ideals and values that you don’t want to violate. However, be willing to accept that there may be other, better ways to practice your ideals.
Think about our grilled cheese rivals: you don’t have to give up your committed to well-toasted bread, but have you ever considered toasting it in garlic aioli instead of butter?
In sum, the point I’m trying to make is this: rhetoric is a two-sided process, so if you are going to ask people to change their minds and alter their lives based on what you have to say, it’s fair and appropriate to be willing to change as well.
Principle 6: You Can’t Force People—Persuade Them Instead
It might be more accurate to say that you shouldn’t force people to do what you want. One of the things that I find so important about rhetoric is that it respects people’s agency or, in other words, their ability to act for themselves.
If you’re going to write an effective argument and deal with disagreement productively, you have to give your audience the ability to make their own decisions about what is best. Rhetoric isn’t about forcing people—it’s about persuading them.
Imagine, then, that your next door neighbor has grown some tomatoes and that you really want some. It’s been forever since you’ve had a good tomato. You have several options:
You could sneak over during the night and eat them all while your neighbor sleeps. But that’s theft, not rhetoric.
You could knock your neighbor unconscious and eat the tomatoes. But that’s violence, not rhetoric.
You could spray some dye on the tomatoes so that they look like they’ve gone bad and then tell your neighbor that you’ll take them off her hands. But that’s manipulation, not rhetoric.
You could gather up some friends and some torches and pitchforks and then surround your neighbor’s house and demand tomatoes. But that’s intimidation, not rhetoric.
Or you could go to your neighbor’s house, compliment her gardening skills, tell her that you’ve been dying to make tomato sauce, and promise that, if she gives you some tomatoes, you’ll give her some of the sauce when it’s ready. You get tomatoes, and your neighbor gets tomato sauce—it’s a win-win. You’re neighbor might say no, but you’ve given her a pretty good reason to say yes. That is rhetoric.
If you’re committed to the rhetorical process, you recognize that things can get pretty scary when people start using violence and coercion to get what they want. If you want to guarantee a particular outcome, the only way to do that is with force, but that requires disrespecting your audience.
So, if you’re going to write a responsible and effective argument, you have to respect the possibility that your audience might not end up agreeing with you. Of course, you’ll do everything you can to show them why they should—but you acknowledge that things might not go your way in the end. And that’s okay—using force to get what you want could cause things to turn pretty bad pretty quick.
Anytime you force your neighbor to give you her tomatoes, she’ll resent you. But, if you use responsible rhetoric to persuade your neighbor to share her tomatoes, there won’t be any hard feelings.
When you try to force people to do things, you gain enemies that you have to destroy to get what you want. When you focus on persuasion, you build friendships and gain allies who, now that you’re on the same page, work with you to improve a situation.
Principle 7: Incremental Improvement is Better Than Ideological Entrenchment
Finally, if you’re going to work through disagreement productively, respecting your audience as people with different experiences and good reasons for their beliefs, acknowledging all that you and your audience have in common, and protecting their right to accept or reject your proposal, it’s worth acknowledging that a step in the right direction is better than no step at all.
Rhetoric works in the real world—not in the ideal world. By that, I mean that we can and should have lofty ideals, but it’s not always possible to implement our ideals right away, at least not without abusing other people. In a perfect world, everyone would agree with you by default. If, by some stretch, they didn’t already agree, though, they would be willing to accept your proposals without any changes.
But we don’t live in a perfect world—at least, not a world that perfectly fits our vision of what it should be like. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of luck. Even if we can’t get our perfect scenario right away, rhetoric is a useful process for working towards something better.
Let’s imagine you’re failing your biology class, so you go to your teacher near the end of the semester and ask them to raise your grade: you really need at least a B to get into your major. Well, in your perfect world, your teacher would just raise your grade and that would be the end of it. But your teacher can’t just do that: simply changing your grade would be unfair to the other students, and it might get your teacher in trouble with administrators. However, your teacher agrees to let you make up the assignments you missed and even offers to let you redo one of the projects for a higher grade.
Now you have a couple of choices—you could reject the offer because it doesn’t match what you wanted. You could just take the failing grade and go on with your life. You could start tweeting about how stupid your teacher is. You could try to them fired. You could throw eggs at their car.
Or, you could accept the offer and recognize that, even if your teacher isn’t in a position to give you your ideal outcome, they can give you a better outcome than you would otherwise have.
That’s why I think it’s so useful and important to think of rhetoric as a process. Because real life is messy and people come to different issues from so many different angles, you might not be able to persuade people to get on board with your whole vision all at once. And that’s okay because you don’t have to. You can work together to take a few steps forward. Then, after some time passes, you might be able to persuade them to take another few steps. As the rhetorical process unfolds over time, the situation can get closer and closer to serving everyone involved in the best way possible.
An all-or-nothing approach to disagreement is a pretty quick road to nothing. If neither you nor your audience will budge from their position—no matter how right you think you are—then you’re both just stuck. Sure, you could badger and bully them into doing things your way—but that’s not rhetoric anymore.
If you really are committed to the rhetorical process and to all the respect for the other side that that entails, you’ll recognize that a few steps forward now is better than a giant leap that never comes.
Disagreement is unavoidable, just a part of our everyday lives—and, in the case of argument papers, even a part of our schoolwork. But with these seven rhetorical principles, you’ll be in a much better position to deal productively with those disagreements when they arise. Then, instead of just seeing who can shout their opinion the loudest, you’ll be involved in a real process of working with other people towards real improvement.
When important things are at stake, it’s becoming increasingly popular to see things in stark contrasts between right and wrong—allies and enemies. But it’s important to recognize that our so-called enemies are people too, and, even if we can’t respect their ideas, we should respect their humanity.
I realize that—as with all things rhetorical—someone might take issue with the principles I’ve presented here. If everyone already agreed to them, I wouldn’t need to say them.
However, I’ll just say that how we do things matters at least as much as what we do: and rhetoric done well offers a way of dealing with disagreements that affirms shared humanity and promotes collaboration on difficult problems ranging from the personal to the geopolitical.
As always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or compliments, leave them down below. If this video was helpful to you, give it a like and share it with a friend or classmate—and we’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.