Civil Disagreement: A Lost Virtue

We pride ourselves in being a free and tolerant nation. It is true and good that our legal framework largely protects our right to free speech and to freely exercise or choose not to exercise, even criticise, religion. It is right that people, whether private citizens or business executives, are free to voice matters of conscience and conviction and are free to act on those convictions via the commercial choices they make. Yet while the law may create the space for free discussion and conscience to occur, what the law allows can never be enough to cultivate the virtue that is ultimately needed to maintain the quality of discussion on which the progress of our democracy depends: the virtue of civil disagreement. To, as Tim Wilson stated in that now notorious video, ‘disagree without being disagreeable’. Or, as St James put it, ‘Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Currently, we find ourselves in a time where the virtue of civil disagreement is in short supply. The state of our polity is in sorry shape when a video that shows two people of good will disagreeing with one another about deep matters of conscience and yet still maintaining their friendship (via a light beverage) receives savage opprobrium. For many, any discussion at all is unacceptable, even immoral. The irony of censuring a discussion about respectful and tolerant discourse in the name of tolerance seems to have been lost on so many of the purveyors of invective.

To cultivate virtue is not easy. Virtue takes courage. It is all too easy to insulate oneself within the infallibility of one’s own worldview and to simply dismiss other opinions. It is too easy to lash out on social media, to engage in violent protest and intimidation to shut down a speaker; in short, to simply not listen. It takes courage to admit that one’s humanity leaves one susceptible to error. It takes courage to leave personal conviction open for questioning and undertake the hard work of thinking about the underlying fundamental convictions that have led those one disagrees with to take a contrary view. Yet, to do this is to participate in that vital venture of truth seeking necessary for a truly free and functioning democracy.

The survival of the virtue of civil disagreement depends on all citizens of good will deciding with every contentious issue to listen to the other person and to respond, not by attacking a straw man created by wilful ignorance and prejudice, not by trite appeals to the “current year”, but by listening to the best of the other person’s reasons and then responding frankly in civil discussion. This is not to say all opinions are equally valid. But it is to recognise that thoughtful and intelligent people of good will can disagree deeply on fundamental issues for good reasons.

When we have the courage to practice this virtue, perhaps we will discover blind spots in our own thinking. Perhaps we will aid our interlocutors to discover blind spots in theirs. Importantly in a democracy, perhaps in our disagreement we’ll find points of common agreement and compromise that can form the basis of moving forward. Perhaps profound disagreements will remain. But perhaps, when we cultivate this virtue, we will discover that those we disagree with are truly people after all and not quite the monsters we imagine, simply trying to apprehend the world truly. And in that empathetic realisation, we are better able to live together in mutual respect  We may continue to disagree, but at least we understand more clearly why.

The virtue of civil disagreement is epitomised in the impugned video when Hastie and Wilson are both made to articulate what they find most compelling about the other’s argument: something all of us should make a habit of doing with those we disagree with!

A greater apprehension of the truth depends on free and frank discussion. For diverse people to be able share in common life together depends on the cultivation of civic friendship coupled with civil disagreement. Yet, if we cannot recover this virtue, how long before whole sections of the Australian community are no longer welcome to share in the same civil space? If we are cultivating public discourse that is absolutist; that only welcomes one view, if we are cultivating people who are slow to hear yet quick to speak, how much poorer will our society be for it! We may remain a democracy in name but become an Orwellian society characterised by mob groupthink enforcement in practice, left to wallow in our own ignorant enclaves.

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