What does it mean to have a healthy disagreement?

Freeman Wright, Guest Writer

Some time ago my roommate Jonny posed a question to me: “What does it mean to have a healthy disagreement?” Even though I spend much of my time disagreeing with other people (per the nature of my majors), it was a question I hadn’t mulled over in my own life. I took some time to think about it and settled on the following answer: “It’s when we disagree with each other at the beginning of an argument but you end up seeing my point of view.” 

Jonny laughed at my ridiculous answer and immediately dismissed his question, calling it stupid. While my answer certainly fit that description I didn’t understand why he would find the question itself ‘stupid’. When I asked him why he thought that, he responded with a beautiful description of what healthy disagreement really is so much so that it would be a disservice to him to try and represent it verbatim. At the crux of his message was that it is simply common sense to have healthy disagreements, as having healthy disagreements is a sign that two people respect each other more than they respect their own opinions. Using this as an example of common sense, we agreed that common sense was rare in this world and that most of it resided with us.

Jonny and I had just been talking about abortion– a topic that raises hairs like no other, especially at a private Californian Christian college such as Westmont. Westmont in particular is a hotbed for such discussions as it has equal populations of both liberals and conservatives. Jonny and I both had fundamentally different views about what abortion policy should look like and what it would mean within this world and the next. When we failed to convince each other of our own takes Jonny posed his question. The question and the search for its answer has stayed in my heart since he asked that. What does it mean to have a healthy disagreement? While it may be easier for two roommates to have a healthy disagreement, what does it look like for those who aren’t living with each other?

I think this is a question we should all mull over, especially during this age where our church seems to be ever divided along political lines and our nation becomes increasingly polarized between parties that submit to increasingly different moral paradigms. Many of our political problems today stem from an increasing lack of common understanding between two vastly different camps. Another way we can understand this is that many of our political problems today stem from an inability of the camps that have divided our nation to have healthy disagreements about anything — let alone compromise. 

 We were able to have a healthy disagreement because we love each other as brothers in Christ. Our healthy disagreement was only possible because, while not discounting the importance of the subject, we understood that some things needed to take precedence over our disagreements. First, we both have reasons for holding our values. Whatever those reasons may be, it would be wrong for either of us to dismiss the validity of the other’s beliefs on the subjective basis of what we ourselves believe. To do so would be toxic to our relationship and dismiss any possibility that those who disagree can be anything other than combative with each other. 

Second, we realized that the disagreement didn’t really matter on the personal level, especially when it came to politics. Abortion isn’t going to be completely repealed or completely banned based on one of us forcing the other to submit to our own values. Both of us needed to step back and remember the relative insignificance of the topic on the individual level and not allow an inflated and demonizing perception of our values get in the way of actual human relations. Disagreements matter only as much as we allow them to. 

The final point I want to make has a more theological spin. Jonny and I took time to reflect upon our faith and, in particular, the two most important commandments. We are called to love the Lord before all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In many ways the values which inform our understandings of morally charged topics, especially abortion, come from how we love our God and how we understand our relationship with him on both the individual and social level. This gives us a fine reason to disagree with those whose values seem to come into conflict with our own. But when we remember to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must first love and accept ourselves despite our inherent faults while rejoicing in the love of our God displayed to us through the Cross. When we love our neighbor as we love ourselves we should mimic the unconditional love our God has promised and shows us everyday despite everything we do towards those whose faults exacerbate our distaste.

Today, political opinions act as one of the most common ways in which we pass judgment on others — usually negatively. The following information, which deeply troubled me, comes from an article from the Institute of Family Studies that has been presented to me in a few different classes and will be available in a link at the bottom of the page. As of 2020 almost 80% of all marriages share the same political opinions. In 2016 that number was 70%. According to the Institute for Family Studies, “when Gallup asked in 1958, ‘If you had a daughter of marriageable age, would you prefer she marry a Democrat or Republican, all other things being equal?’ The results: 18% of Americans said they would prefer their daughter to marry a Democrat, 10% preferred a Republican, and the majority didn’t care” (IFS 2020). In 2017, the year after Trump won one of the most vile and divisive elections in American history, one in ten Americans ended a relationship on the basis of political disagreement. 

Our increasing inability to have healthy disagreements is tearing us apart, both as individuals in relationships and as a collective. As Christians it is our responsibility to create our own society within the church that is based on the teachings of the Kingdom of Heaven separate from the society we live in. I believe from these teachings that we must understand that as we act virtuously and with love towards our neighbor, healthy disagreement must be the norm. 

Is this something we do at Westmont? Do we accept the opinions that directly contradict our own? Is this something that we do with even our close friends, let alone strangers? Is this something we strive for both within the Church and outside of it? What about the inflammatory opinions we see online,whether they are Twitter takes or Instagram story posts? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Unhealthy disagreement has become more and more normalized and its effects are toxic on our society and within our own lives, especially mine. It is something that we must strive against — both as individuals and as a group. 


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