This is the first in a series of "A Fresh Take" articles where Gavin gives readers a new perspective on a complex, controversial or overlooked topic. Stay tuned for more articles in the coming weeks.
Growing up, I learned to avoid conflict. One time in kindergarten, I knocked on the head of a friend wearing a bike helmet. The teacher scolded me to keep my hands to myself. From then on, I was a professional conflict-avoider.
Always better to stay quiet than rock the boat, I thought. I wanted to get along with everyone, to be universally liked and respected. I still cringe when a class discussion gets tense or people shout at each other in an argument.
But that way of thinking may not be right.
These days, I believe that any person with principles and values should have strong opinions—and stand by them. If you care about the climate crisis, certain U.S. policies and corporate actions should infuriate you. So speak up. If you care about movies, I want to hear a passionate monologue about your favorite scene. If you care about criminal justice reform, you should advocate for the work of organizations making a difference.
The problem with our discourse isn’t that we have strong opinions, it’s that we refuse to listen, stay open-minded and update our opinions in the face of new information. It is possible to disagree with kindness and humility.
In the words of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, we should strive for “strong opinions, loosely held.” Rather than equating our opinions with our identity, we should treat opinions as scientific hypotheses. By seeking out diverse perspectives, we can update our opinions to better reflect reality.
Here are three ways to disagree better.
First, find common values. Rather than immediately blurting out why someone is wrong, ask questions. Go deeper. I have found that it is nearly impossible to vilify someone after listening to their story for an hour, whether it be in conversation, video or podcast form. Go beyond political parties or stereotypes and learn the roots of someone’s worldview. You’ll likely find huge areas of common ground from which you can address tough topics on the same team. Thoughtful disagreement starts from recognizing shared humanity instead of “us vs. them” duality.
Second, address the point, not the person. Internet entrepreneur Paul Graham wrote about a hierarchy of disagreement in 2008. The lowest levels are attacking the character of the author or style of the argument. The highest form of disagreement is responding directly to the main idea. People often interpret disagreement as a personal attack, so use “I” statements about your personal experience and knowledge. Your statements probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but your questions, conversations, and friendship might.
Third, be radically open-minded. What is something you have changed your mind about in the last year? If you can’t answer this question as a college student, you might not be actively seeking out experiences and information that challenge you to think differently.
Try to reason from your principles and values rather than from your political party or friend circles. This takes active work! As social animals, we find it psychologically painful to go against the beliefs of our tribes. But to live a moral life, we must practice regaining the courage to stand alone. Decide what matters to you, research like a scientist, and admit that you could be wrong.
As the opinion editor at The Santa Clara student newspaper, I hope to be like a gardener: cultivating healthy soil where a variety of ideas can grow and spread. We’ll feature articles about politics and potatoes, San Jose and Syria, ethics and economics, controversy and compassion. I hope that articles from this series start dialogues, bring overlooked issues to light, and help us critically shape our worldview.