The importance of being disagreeable

Why can’t we all just agree with each other? You tweet motivational posters and I’ll like them. I’ll post inspirational quotes and you’ll like them. We may then build mutually supportive professional learning networks and share resources. Why not just do that?

There are reasons why we argue. In David Didau’s recent book he sets out many of the possible causes of bias. These biases are hard to eradicate with the best of intentions and they even subconsciously affect the way we assess our students’ work. As I’ve gained experience, I have come to realised two important facts about people, their biases and their beliefs.

Beliefs are usually genuinely held

It is common to view the people that we disagree with as bad and dishonest. You see this in politics, particularly amongst rank-and-file activists. Conservatives are greedy and selfish; socialists are lazy and immoral. Just look at the recent spate of self-cannibalism that the British Labour party indulged in. The worst thing that a labour party member could think of calling another labour party member was a “Tory”.

Yet when you actually spend time with someone possessing a different political outlook, it is often confronting to realise just how normal they are. This is why politicians are frequently close friends with other politicians from across the divide. They spend time together and realise that the other doesn’t have a forked tail and horns. Even when the other knowingly uses deceitful tactics such as spin – in contrast to simply being unaware of their own bias – they are doing so tactically, believing that these tactics serve a higher purpose.

It is the same in education. Most beliefs are sincerely held. Traditionalists don’t hate children and progressives don’t want to dumb-down. All groups think that if their ideas were fully implemented then the world would be a better place for everyone.

Beliefs can cause evil without evil intent

It is also true that many ideas, despite being sincerely held, are extremely bad ideas. I have no doubt that Paolo Freire was a genuine guy who wanted to free the world from oppression but his admiration for Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution is pretty chilling from a 21st century perspective. And let us not forget that in the early twentieth century, an urge to relieve the suffering of the poor may have led you into supporting eugenics as easily as it led you into progressive politics and perhaps both.

It is shocking to understand this, but an idea conceived with the best of intentions and with the simple aim of making the world a better place has the potential to cause great evil.

Argue with me

The key accomplishment of Western liberal democracies is that we have developed the mechanisms of democracy, free speech and the rule of law that allow us to challenge the ideas of others without worrying about offending somebody powerful and being locked-up or worse. The hope is that we can expose bad ideas before they capture the popular imagination. That’s a good thing. It is also messy and sometimes nasty but debate ultimately leads to a better way forward than totalitarian utopianism.

I am afraid that if you need everybody to agree with you are a dangerous person; not necessarily evil or dishonest but nonetheless a risk to the rest of us.

Logo of the second International Eugenics Congress, 1921 - Public Domain

Logo of the second International Eugenics Congress, 1921 – Public Domain


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