There is something irreducibly confronting and ungentle about disagreement.
Specifically, about being disagreed with. I used to view disagreement as effectively symmetric. If \(N\) and \(L\) have different beliefs, then I thought it was equivalent to say that \(N\) disagrees with \(L\), or \(L\) disagrees with \(N\), or that they disagree with each other. But such symmetry doesn’t capture what happens when people disagree in real life. In practice, there are usually two distinct perspectives on the interaction. There is one person who is expressing a disagreement, and another who is being disagreed with—a dissenter and a dissentee—though the roles may alternate many times in the course of a discussion.
In private conversations we want people to feel comfortable playing both these roles. But I sense that it is considerably easier to be a dissenter than a dissentee. Indeed, a person who is expressing a contrary view is not necessarily even aware that they are doing so. I’ve had conversations with people who don’t seem to be aware of the possibility that I might disagree with what they are saying, because to them their view is uncontroversial. There is no perceived risk for such dissenters.
To the extent that being a dissenter can be stressful, the distress is due mainly to:
- the anticipated pushback (ie. the anticipation of becoming a dissentee); or
- unease about causing other people to be become dissentees.
Being a dissentee is hard. Regardless of how the news is delivered, who enjoys finding out that other people think differently about a topic you are invested in? By implication, at least one person is thinking things that are false or bad or both, and it might be you.
To use the economic metaphor, I think that with the right conversational norms we can make it arbitrarily cheap to be a dissenter. It’s possible to encourage dissenting views so enthusiastically that it would be costly not to dissent. But I think that there is a minimum cost associated with being a dissentee. The cost varies depending on how invested the dissentee is in the topic, how integral it is to their worldview, and how much is at stake. But it never goes away.
Agreeableness, and the conversational manoeuvres that characterise it, appears to be largely about making it easier to be a dissenter by minimising (or removing) the anticipated stress of becoming a dissentee, or others’ hesitancy to make you a dissentee. For example, we can explicitly solicit objections, or listen to and be curious about someone’s dissenting view without publicising our own.
Agreeableness has less to say about how to communicate contrary views to others—how to subject them to being a dissentee—in a way that doesn’t broach their sense of epistemic safety. We can (and should) flag our fallibility, and be open-minded about alternatives. But these techniques can only soften the difference-of-opinion blow so much.
If there’s anything that makes being a dissentee easier, it is that they become one on their terms. That they have some agency about the surrounding circumstances. Maybe they have decided to embrace a culture of constructive criticism at work to improve outcomes. Maybe they have realised that they don’t understand other political perspectives well enough and have decided to learn more. Maybe they’ve just had time to mentally prepare for the visit of an opinionated relative. Regardless, what makes the disagreement work is that the dissentee has, on some level, consented to put themselves through the ordeal.
I don’t think that any amount of agreeableness on the part of the dissenter can replace this. By disagreeing, however politely, the dissenter is needling the dissentee’s comfortable bubble, and that places the dissentee in a position of vulnerability that they need to have signed up for.