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The Value of Disagreement

An Interview with Alissa Wilkinson

Can pop culture help teach us how to disagree?

Associate Professor of English and Humanities, The King's College / Film Critic / Author
March 18, 2015

Interview by Justin McRoberts 

What is the value of disagreement?

Alissa Wilkinson: We Christians believe—and most people intuitively know—that we are finite, limited beings. Disagreement between reasonable people is a way to see how finite we are. We are bound by our limitations of time and place and circumstance; it is impossible for any one person to grasp all of what it means to be human. And insofar as we grasp our limitations, we become more humble about what we know. Disagreement is a way for us to understand God better. Lastly, it is hard to learn empathy without disagreement. In this way, it makes us better people if we learn to disagree well.

Is there a limit to the value of disagreement?

Yes, I think so. Of course, we don’t always do this well. There are things we ought to agree upon, culturally. Christians ought to agree on things like the existence of God and the Divinity of Christ, for instance. But that is knowledge we come to by faith rather than by argument. We can defend that knowledge or belief, but because it cannot be proven rationally, we don’t come to that knowledge by argument. Ultimately, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Are there key elements to disagreeing well?

The first key is learning to take ourselves less seriously. We have our egos tied into our opinions and feel that, when someone disagrees with us, they are challenging or invalidating us as human beings. We need to separate our identities from our ideas. We are children of God. We are not our opinions or positions.

Second, we need to cultivate the art of rhetoric. Where I teach, at The King’s College, formal logic and rhetoric is part of the core curriculum, but few educational institutions teach those subjects as a matter of course. Arguments need to be made well. The one place we see lots of arguing is on TV news and talk shows, but those are filled with ad hoc or ad hominem attacks, intended to invalidate the person making an argument rather than investigate or challenge the ideas they are presenting.

I love tech and the web but there are ways the web makes us much worse at talking to one another. Instead of looking for our news in several, varying sources, we seek out information from silos and go to those we agree with for our news.

You suggest that pop culture is a good place to model disagreement. How so?

First, we can separate ourselves from our pop culture preferences and tastes. Even if we feel strongly about something we also know, “It’s just TV, it’s not me.”

Also, pop culture serves as a low-stakes place to work out ideas and see them embodied. The television show The Americans is a good example. It is a show about Russian KGB spies. And I don’t have the first idea how someone becomes a KGB spy. But as I watch, I start to understand these people as people. Even though what they’re doing is something I think is wrong, I can empathize with them as human, and even understand the idea behind the things they’re doing.