Put off venturing on to social media until 9.45am on a Wednesday, this will give you time to listen to Timandra Harkness’s How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments. Reason is currently out of fashion and people with actual, useful knowledge are being edged closer to the ducking stool as if expertise is witchcraft. There is a lot of lashing out followed by a shoring up of our positions, however fragile or preposterous they are. In each short and useful episode, Harkness talks to those who have to know how to argue effectively, whether they are scientists or negotiators. It all seems so obvious, but all the traits and positions discussed are so hastily lost in the desperation to be right.
In Episode Two, she imagined a desire for an excessive shed that would block out her neighbour’s sunlight, though she was keen to state to any other neighbours listening that it was hypothetical shed.
There is a lot of lashing out followed by a shoring up of our positions, however fragile or preposterous they are,
How do you change entrenched positions in our current climate of dogma and high dudgeon? Liz Stokoe, a professor of social interaction, tries to defuse simple neighbourly feuds over things like leaky gutters by offering a cheery openness during the first hints of confrontation. She shows that she is willing to talk. Sara Gorton from Unison is lead negotiator for NHS trade unions. She believes that she has a natural disposition to avoid conflict and yet has chosen a job where conflict always looms. She believes it is important to ensure you have a proper formal framework for disagreement, an aim to go beyond rhetoric and into dialogue.
In the attempt to break down the misunderstandings that become immoveable barriers in conflict, a neuroscientist advises Harkness to repeat back to your interlocutor what you believe they have just said. As anyone who has wasted a day in a Twitter spat will know, hours can be spent just trying to explain how your original post has been misunderstood. Just as Harkness’s hypothetical shed almost has its roof on, she speaks to a cognitive and behavioural scientist in Paris who reminds us that we may never succeed in getting people to agree with our position, but that we might find more harmonious ways of agreeing to disagree.
In arguments, we are often told we are living in a bubble. Radio can help you prick that.
In the following episode, Harkness looks at how scientific disagreements work which combine a platonic, harmonious view of scientific endeavour as a dispassionate search for truth, before a scientist adds that “there is no better motivation in science than ‘get that son of a bitch’”. I like the Utopian vision regarding argument technique of “steer clear of personal attacks. Test yourself, and accept that sometimes you’ll be wrong”. Like two Samuel Beckett hobos, let’s wait until we see this style back in fashion.
In arguments, we are often told we are living in a bubble. Radio can help you prick that. Two footnote recommendations that make good pins for our possible preconceptions are Dangerous Crossings, a documentary on refugees seeking to illegally cross the Channel, and The Listening Project, my favourite Radio 4 eavesdrop into the lives of others.
How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 9.30am