Her voice thinned as she finished her statement, my father quickly countering her point at an octave higher.
It was after dinner, and they hadn’t left the table, still in a heated exchange that began just before my two younger brothers and I had asked to be excused 20 minutes earlier.
I listened for a few minutes, waiting for a lull.
“Are you guys fighting?” I asked.
“No, we’re just having a discussion,” dad reassured me.
The “discussions” happened frequently around our house and were almost always centered around religion. My mother is a devout Christian and my father is agnostic. Because this difference in beliefs has been the start of many wars, many people are surprised my parents could live together, let alone share the same bed. We’re not talking I’m an animal lover versus I’m going hunting with the boys type thing: this is a fundamental difference in the very framework that guides their every action and decision, so there’s bound to be some dissension.
Over the years, my parents had countless “discussions,” so I grew up understanding that people can have opposing opinions, and that it’s okay to disagree. They encouraged us to listen when we were younger, and participate as we got older. Although I generally understood less than half of what they were talking about as a kid, I learned a lot about the art of debate and how to respectfully disagree with someone. From the inflection and tone to the subtle pauses and courtesies of exchange, the “discussions” revealed that dialogue can happen between individuals with differing points of view, and that the process can be meaningful for both participants.
Studies have shown that regular debate can strengthen our oratory skills, refine our opinions, and help us actually learn a thing or two. And while there won’t always be consensus, it can be satisfying—and empowering—to agree to disagree. Or in the case of my parents, fall asleep in the same bed.
But sadly, it seems that we’re living in a time where these “discussions” aren’t happening as often. We're quick to dismiss others when they don’t share our opinion, relegating them to the "other side.” We often surround ourselves with people whose lifestyles and beliefs mirror our own. Though it’s natural to gravitate to likeminded people, issues arise when we start to think negatively about people who don’t share those opinions.
Citing the increasing polarization in American politics and growing animosity across party lines, the Pew Research Center recently reported:
And it goes beyond politics. This chasm extends into parenting, religion, even what we eat or watch on television. We align ourselves with people who share our viewpoints and often consciously opt not to hear other vantages. This is a natural tendency that scholars worry is only exacerbated by social media, as feeds can create “echo chambers” by featuring content from like-minded friends and media outlets.
It’s human nature to avoid conflict, but it can also be detrimental to our growth. In her TED Talk "Dare to Disagree," Margaret Heffernan shows how good disagreement is central to progress, and that a good partner isn’t necessarily an echo chamber, but someone who encourages conflict and disagreement.
“We need to be teaching these skills to kids and adults at every stage if we want to have thinking organizations and have a thinking society,” she says.
Constructive conflict can force us and the people around us into doing our best thinking. It’s a process business leaders use to encourage innovation and growth.
Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? In it, Plato describes a group of individuals who have been locked in a cave since birth, unable to see anything beyond the wall that exists directly ahead of them. The wall reflects various shadows that the prisoners believe to be the most real things in the world...they refer to the shadows when they speak to one another about trees or women.
One of the prisoners is released and goes out into the world. He quickly realizes the shadows are only reflections of what’s actually happening. The sun initially blinds him, but eventually enables him to see the objects in the full light of day along with the stars and the moon. When he goes back to share details of what he’s seen with the other prisoners, they don't believe him.
Plato's cave is symbolic of the echo chambers of today. If we want to teach our children to think independently and have respect for others’ opinions, we need to start having more productive conversations, and pull them toward the light.
Sequestering ourselves into these silos of information not only limits our exposure to thoughts and beliefs, but also our children’s understanding of different views that will help them shape a more accurate picture of our world.