Widgets Magazine


We don’t know how to disagree

Israel and Palestine. Abortion. Immigration reform. Same-sex marriage. Universal healthcare. Are you ready to negotiate? Among many of the people I love, ranging from the radical right to the radical left, there seems to be little room for compromise on a wide spectrum of issues.

How should such a vast difference of opinion be navigated in life? How are we navigating it on this campus?

Unfortunately, I think we are failing at doing so.

Perhaps each of us is too quick to believe that we are the enlightened one. But if education can destroy ignorance, there must be some common ground where sensitive issues can be debated with civility.

There are right answers and wrong answers in the world, truths and untruths; but the majority of issues as we get older tend to accumulate in some gray area. My appeal is not for categorizing the “gray” issues as right or wrong, but for more civility in arriving at some hint of communal understanding, where we can occupy the same space without acting hatefully towards each other or stupidly on the Internet. Agreement isn’t the goal, but respect is.

So, what of this gray area? How are we to compromise in order to share this campus, the nation and the world?

One option is to run, to cover your ears and assure yourself that you alone are right. You can easily isolate yourself in a world of opinions with which you agree, and find multiple sources to back you up. It is a cyclical process of bias confirmation, which can create a broader climate of extremism and isolation.

Another option is to fervently and loudly argue your point so that you cannot hear others. Similar to the path of pledge-signing, and blocking the legislative process, this is boring and useless. You have ensured that even before you enter a conversation, you will not care what another person believes. It lacks any spirit of curiosity, any interest or trust in the ideas of other people.

There is a third option: to consider that someone with an opposing opinion might be right. It sounds simplistic, but then, so does the immediate jump to find all the ways they are wrong. Being at one of the best universities in the country, we have the unique opportunity to be surrounded by some very brilliant people. But oftentimes in political debates, op-ed battles and comment wars, students use that opportunity to tear each other down, and then stomp on the foundation of other people’s beliefs.

An obvious example is the recent debate over Israel and Palestine. I admit I am not well-versed on the subject, but I am trying to learn about the history of the conflict as it unfolds. I do know this: I have rarely seen more vitriolic and wholly irreconcilable comment threads, in quantity and tone, than those that exist under the recent Gaza op-eds in The Daily and other campus publications. The comment section is a well-known place to vent baseless frustrations, but it spills back into the articles about the conflict and daily interactions of students. There exists violence on both sides, and the history of the conflict is mired in political, cultural and highly emotional terms. As in other issues, how can this be reconciled without some give on both sides?

In a recent conversation, my mom provided me with the metaphor of the “consensus elevator.” The point is to reach some form of understanding with people you may usually try to avoid. When you don’t know people, it is easy to assume they are hateful, but that is a pretty negative act in and of itself. We should want to know what their larger concerns are. Is there some level way up high where you actually agree? You keep riding the issue upward and find that point. If you truly want to understand somebody’s point of view, that almost always works. Sometimes you have to ride up to the 99th floor, but you will usually find a place where you agree.

The issue is whether you can be patient enough, and sure enough of why you believe what you believe to take the ride. Maybe you can understand their view a bit, and maybe not. But at least you’re arguing about the crux of an issue rather than accusing each other of lacking any morality.

Simply put, the goal is respect.

Is this goal important or impossible? Does defense of larger truths require some level of disrespect? Contact Annie at aegraham@stanford.edu.

About Annie Graham

Annie Graham is a junior from Phoenix, Arizona majoring in English. She is a member of the women’s club soccer team, a founding member of Stanford Athletes and Allies Together, a farming SPOT leader, and she tries to call her grandparents often.
  • It’s funny because…

    This sucks. I completely disagree with you. Someone needs to write an op-ed countering every point she tried to make.

  • Sharon

    Annie, thank you for writing this. To me it represents the view of a moderate group of people I identify with: By virtue of not having personal historical or ethnical links to either side of the conflict, I am relatively new to the conflict. I know a little about its history, but I do not fully appreciate the deep cultural and historical hurt inflicted on both sides. I sense the broad gray areas in perhaps every element of life. There is rarely a clear-cut right and a sweeping wrong.

    Every person, with his or her opinion, is not simply a member of a group, holding that opinion because of their identification. Every person comes with a complex background, deep reasons why they do, think, and feel as they do, making choices that may seem irrational to an outsider but that make the most sense to them as an agent. Around lines of conflict, there are wells and wells of human hurt and suffering. People are driven to do terrible things when their egos, lives, or families are under threat. Appreciating the humanness and depth of that suffering is, I think, the first step to reconciliation and empathy.