This is my response to the TEDTalk video by Margaret Heffernan sent to me by a dear American friend with whom I have disagreed.
UWC (United World Colleges) taught me something that I will never forget: It taught me that it was ok to disagree, and that it was possible – and necessary – to have conversations with those who had extremely different opinions and beliefs from my own. Why? Because sometimes people would be wrong (and someone needed to help them get their facts straight), sometimes I was wrong, and because sometimes – beyond right and wrong – the two, three or four sides of our separate arguments and beliefs would be strengthened by our conversations. In other words: by genuinely talking to someone with different beliefs, you are strong enough to believe that you can change their thoughts, but also humble enough to accept that you might be wrong.
I believe that disagreement is the collarbone of innovation, but I don’t think that the mere existence of disagreement is enough. The conversation is necessary. So many people in the United States openly criticize their governments, but – I have noticed – so few confront their friends and colleagues (I talk from my experience in College, not the job sector). The American politeness (as I like to call it) is great, but it also teaches you to “agree to disagree”, and after living in a United World College during two years, that comfortable politeness threatened to kill my brains. I need confrontation, and – luckily enough – my closest friends are extremely confrontational. Thanks to them this blog exists, and thanks to them I have become the person that I am.
An example of this American politeness that I like to talk about happened in the house of a friend that I won’t name, where the father started asking me about my thoughts on American foreign policy, during dinner. Less than a minute after, the mother interrupted him saying that it was impolite to talk about politics or religion on the table. He stopped. Other times, classmates in college with extremely left-wing views (which I found out afterwards), asked me about my views on Socialism in Latin America (very different from theirs) and nodded silently as I talked. They never exposed their own views or told me what they actually thought: that – from their perspective – I was wrong.
For all the Political Science geeks out there, we can all remember the beginning of The Republic (Plato), where Socrates says to Polemarchus (after he forces him to come to his house): “May there not be the alternative that we may persuade you to let us go?” To what Polemarchus replies: “But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?” Yes, this is probably one of the best lines ever written… like ever. But to the point… It portrays a huge downside to conversations in which both sides disagree. Sometimes people will agree to have a conversation with you, but they will be so closed up that they will try to prove you wrong without really listening to you (and, guess what? Sometimes YOU will be the one who refuses to listen). This is sad, but it should not stop us from discussing as many times as it takes for people to listen. Moreover, you will still be challenged and you will grow as a person. I have experienced this and, eventually, these people have been touched by what I said, while my thoughts and beliefs have improved significantly.
A dear friend from Guatemala – with whom I’ve had multiple discussions – strongly supports the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. I don’t think that I could disagree more with anyone in the world, as I have disagreed with him. He came to visit Venezuela, he has seen a lot, and he still supports the system; but somehow, we understand each other. I always thought that he didn’t listen to me, until one day, after I confronted him on an endless Facebook threat, he said: “con vos coincidimos en principios, no en forma” (our principles coincide, but not our means). It turns out that he did listened, and that I think his conclusion is accurate. What he doesn’t know is how much he has helped me understand the structural issues that have caused this wave of 21st century socialism in Latin America.
Thanks to all the conversations in UWC, I learned to inform myself, to discuss mostly the topics that I mastered (otherwise I would be easily proven wrong), and to listen… a lot! And even though it required a lot of energy and time, it made life more interesting and fun. I don’t know about you, but I find it really boring to talk to people who agree with me all the time. So give it a try! Do yourself a favor and do not always agree to disagree.