Conflict: Should We Just Agree to Disagree?

Sybille NkunzimanaMay 13, 2024Crisis & ChangeFeatures

Artwork by Maureen Allandi, age 17

Today, most people who read the news or use social media are aware of certain high casualty, front-page conflicts in places like Ukraine, Haiti, and Gaza.

But, bubbling beneath the surface of everyday life, there also exists a more passive kind of war. Colloquially deemed “culture wars,” these conflicts are often considered some of the most dangerous, as they foster the division and dissent that precede violence. People do not simply wake up one morning and decide to incite an insurrection. The reasons behind many of the violent conflicts we are witnessing today are deep-rooted and have been brewing for years.

The term “culture wars” often refers to conflicts between groups — liberal versus conservative, religious versus secular — that have differing beliefs rooted in ideas or philosophies attributed to their respective cultures. While armed conflicts typically spur immediate attention and attempts at resolution, culture wars are often overlooked, with people writing them off and “agreeing to disagree,” or deeming them taboo. People often refrain from broaching such topics out of a desire for peace, but in our divergent society, will we ever reach a point where relationships are not determined by political allegiance?

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was rife with religious conflict. Throughout Charlemagne and Pope Leo III’s combined attempt to Christianize Europe, the population was taught to fear other religions, fostering extreme hatred and prejudice toward non-conformists. The manipulation tactics employed throughout this era were so effective that they eventually led to the Crusades. These “Holy Wars” incited by Pope Urban II called not on the army but on the public to storm Jerusalem and take it back from Muslims, whom they believed did not have the right to inhabit it. Over the years, religious conflict in this region has persisted, with different groups continuously attempting to lay claim to it.

No matter where we are from, we are influenced by the popular opinions that surround us, and many would agree that we are largely products of our environment. In the High Middle Ages, leading up to the Crusades, many Europeans were taught to fear those who were different. These thoughts may have been intentionally planted by the higher-ups to control the narrative and suit their own agendas, but over time people began to rationalize and live by these prejudices, and these thoughts became part of their culture. But what if nobody had ever spoken about religion, let alone leveraged it for political gain? Would the Crusades still have happened? Are taboos really the most effective way to avoid conflict?

In a 2020 interview, Thomas Misco, a Miami University professor, enlightened readers on the origins of social studies. In the 1920s and 30s, the field of social studies education came about in the United States to help teach children about democratic citizenship. Young students in grades K-10 would take courses in the humanities before moving on to a two-year program called “The Problems of Democracy,” where they would discuss current events and brainstorm solutions. Naturally, these courses brought together many different ideas and perspectives, driving controversy and forcing people to question their convictions. Misco goes on to talk about how all social studies are rooted in ethics — “human relations in action,” as he calls them — implying that it is unethical to be disinterested in discussing politics. This would imply that taboos are also unethical.

Sometimes we refuse to talk about anything controversial because we do not want to hurt others, but if we refuse to talk about these things, we are still causing harm by not upholding a high moral standard. Therefore, the question becomes, how do we keep the peace while discussing topics that are polarizing, uncomfortable, or even incendiary?

Research out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, suggests that communication is an important step to conflict resolution. Engaging in respectful dialogue with one’s peers can be difficult, and people often allow their personal feelings toward a subject to drown out the opinions of others. However, researchers suggest that this only causes minor disagreements to devolve into significant conflicts. They recommend that, instead of retreating further into our personal beliefs, we try to stay open-minded and listen to alternative opinions without judgment. Researchers go on to suggest that we communicate our openness by being mindful of our body language and asking clarifying questions to show that we are genuinely interested in the opinions that others have to offer. What we might take away from this advice is that we need to showcase a certain level of compassion and respect for others, and not let our emotions or personal opinions turn the conversation hostile. Even if we disagree with what the other person has to say, we must refrain from reducing others to their opinions.

For millennia, society has maintained arbitrary norms designed to ostracize anyone who does not conform, with leaders consistently using esoteric ideologies to justify their persecution of anyone who falls out of line. In a world where most have become highly attached to their personal idea of what is right, we have managed to dehumanize those whom we believe are wrong. We get so caught up in trying to win ideological debates that we forget each other’s humanity.

When speaking to a person with whom we disagree, it is easier to judge their character based on their opinions than it is to look beyond them and be open-minded. While some claims made in a social or political space can be upsetting to hear, the goal of having these difficult conversations is not to get upset but rather to share information and understand alternate points of view. Most people are guilty of writing others off if they say something out-of-touch or offensive, but imagine if instead of doing that, we simply asked them how they came to feel that way. The University of Iowa recommends that we focus on asking each other open questions when discussing controversial issues. Queries that start with “what” or “how” are best to avoid sounding critical or judgmental. Open questions generally lead to longer, more detailed answers, allowing us to get a more complete idea of someone’s opinion.

Making sure that our interlocutor is comfortable by not judging them is an essential conversational skill that is often disregarded, and this limits our opportunities to expand our worldview. When we surround ourselves with people who share our opinions, we end up in what the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) calls an “opinion echo-chamber.” When our views are constantly agreed with, our confidence in their validity only grows, limiting our tolerance for alternate opinions. The SPSP hypothesizes that this could lead to hostility toward those who do not share our views. To test this theory, they conducted a study where they surveyed American adults on their attitudes toward the United States’ involvement in a phony disease outbreak. Participants were asked to explain why they thought their opinion on the issue was valid before answering questions about another person’s opposing attitude. Researchers found that the more vindicated participants felt, the angrier they became toward the other person and the more they wanted to argue with them. Studies such as this should remind us of the importance of respectful discourse. When we only surround ourselves with like minded individuals, we become confined to our opinion echo-chambers.

We must remember that discussing important topics is not about proving others wrong, but about trying to reach an understanding in which people’s varying perspectives are considered. Engaging with people who do not share our opinion may even allow us to reevaluate and think critically about our beliefs and develop the skills necessary to express them more effectively. In the end, we cannot dream of unity if we do not begin to see each other as intelligent individuals with valuable insights to share.

Sources:

Niedbala, Elizabeth. 2019. “Ingredients for Conflict: Why We Get so Angry When People Disagree with Us | SPSP.” The Society for Personality and Social Psychology. https://spsp.org/news-center/character-context-blog/ingredients-conflict-why-we-get-so-angry-when-people-disagree-us.

University of Colorado. 2019. “How to stop conflict before it starts | CU Boulder Today.” University of Colorado Boulder. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2019/04/10/how-stop-conflict-it-starts.

University of Iowa. n.d. “Open and Closed Questions | Conflict Management at Iowa.” Conflict Management at Iowa. Accessed April 4, 2024. https://conflictmanagement.org.uiowa.edu/open-and-closed-questions.

“Why Discussing Controversial Issues is Part of Educating Engaged Democratic Citizens.” 2020. Miami University. https://miamioh.edu/ehs/news/2020/06/discussing-controversial-issues.html.