Don’t be Afraid to Disagree
Last Monday, March 23rd, author and Washington Post columnist Arthur C. Brooks was scheduled to visit the University of Rochester to discuss the importance of respectful disagreement in an increasingly-polarized social climate. Ultimately, he was unable to visit the university, given recent measures to counter the COVID-19 outbreak. Regardless, one can learn a lot from Brooks’s research. He makes a crucial point, in that we should look to disagree better, not necessarily less. Open dialogue and thoughtful inquiry should be cherished, as these processes are fundamental to the free exchange of ideas. This is no different for topics related to sustainability, environmental regeneration, and ecological literacy.
Too often, well-intentioned people – including, sometimes, environmental activists – are quick to judge and disparage those who hold ideas perceived to be antithetical to one’s own. It’s said that the “opposing side” has views that are fundamentally flawed, ridiculous, and perhaps even dangerous. Therefore, what better way to communicate that one’s reasoning is wrong than through a scathing review which leaves both parties hating one another?
Except, that is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. Careful consideration must be taken into account regarding another side’s perspective, thoughts, and lived experiences – especially for topics which carry a controversial weight. When I witness episodes of intense disagreement in my own life, I think “Oh, these two people are human,” in lieu of “here are two people with deep character flaws.” Here, it seems, is a point of contention: separating criticism of an idea from critiquing one’s personal traits. This is a very easy trap to fall into; I’ve done it myself on numerous occasions. Fortunately, being able to separate the two leads to learning more about arguments which may challenge one’s point of view, and even lend to strengthening an idea one already possessed.
Within issues of urban agriculture, climate change, environmental trade-offs – whatever the case may be – the future will be dependent on our ability to articulate positions in a way which motivates people to engage with environmental consciousness, not drive them away. Just as I would encourage those skeptical of contemporary notions of environmental sustainability to listen and learn from those well studied in the discipline, so too would I encourage environmental activists, scientists, and others to address concerns from those with whom they disagree.
Personally, I think it’s disappointing, albeit understandable, that Brooks’s visit to the UR was cancelled. As the school year draws to a close, Brooks reminds members of the university community that healthy disagreement fosters intellectual growth. For self-described members of the environmental sustainability movement and beyond, welcome disagreement!
Written by Dax Emerson, Class of 2021