Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who sees shades of gray, but I realized that, when it comes to issues I feel passionately about, I can sometimes be as rigidly black and white as the people with whom I disagree.

John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University, helped me realize this in his thoughtful book, Learning to Disagree. Following the academic calendar year, Inazu asks a question in each chapter, such as:

August: How Do We Learn Empathy?
September: Can We Know What’s Fair?
October: What Happens When We Can’t Compromise?

And on until May (Can We Be Friends?). Readers follow Inazu through the school year as he introduces us to his new crop of law students, who must learn how to engage well with people “whose viewpoints we find strange, wrong, or even dangerous.” What are the practices that legal training conveys? This book imparts them to readers in a winsome, funny, and surprisingly relatable way. It’s like lightly auditing law school, in the best possible way.

First, we learn the value of healthy disagreement, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and saying “I don’t even want to talk about (X issue).” Because human beings are complex and have wildly varying reasons for why they believe what they believe, productive dialogue does not come easy. This is why we start to “other” the folks on the opposite side of the spectrum from us. “They” are always like this. They won’t listen to reason. I’m right, and they are wrong, so what could I possibly learn from them?

Except, “they” are not always like this. They might listen to reason if we listen well to them. And we can learn from those with whom we disagree, but this all takes work, cultivating curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to learn.

Inazu is at his best when telling stories, as stories illustrate any given point much better than simply telling someone what to do. Several stories stand out to me, including one about Inazu’s grandparents.

Inazu’s grandmother was pregnant with his dad when the family was interned in a Japanese prison camp. The family suffered many indignities, as did all those who were wrongfully incarcerated for being Japanese. Years later, though, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that provided restitution payments to the surviving Japanese Americans. His statement read, in part: “For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

Reagan’s humility to try and right a wrong for which he was not blameworthy had positive ripple effects, including Inazu’s grandmother finally being able to forgive. Humility and compassion can change a narrative and dissolve a seemingly cemented impasse. “Sometimes a drop of empathy can restrain a flood of needless words and thoughtless commentary,” Inazu writes.

A drop of empathy from both sides would have gone a long way in the Supreme Court case of a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, or the case of the federal courts versus polygamists in the Mormon church, which started out with decent intentions to ban polygamy, but ended up being extremely heavy-handed and overreaching.

“It’s one thing to say you can’t practice polygamy. But now Congress is saying you can’t teach polygamy,” he writes. “Yes, and in fact, this law goes beyond a prohibition on teaching. You can’t even belong to a group that teaches or encourages polygamy. … Membership alone makes you culpable.” In other words, Mormons were not even allowed to share opinions about this issue, which was, Inazu asserts, ripped from “the playbook for authoritarians.”

We must do better in our severely polarized society, whatever issues are facing us in our everyday lives Inazu guides the reader in being engaging, not combative, and using “clarity and charity” as steering principles in all disagreements.

“Every time you choose to engage with someone in a way that neither downplays your own beliefs nor raises their hackles, you have made a small step toward building a kinder, gentler culture around you,” he writes. I didn’t know what this meant, exactly, when reading and underlining those words in yellow highlighter, but then within days an opportunity arose to put this into practice. Increased understanding ensued, for me and for the woman I was talking with. A small bridge was built.

“This book won’t tell you what to believe, but it aims to change the way you engage with disagreement,” Inazu promises on his website. For anyone with passionate opinions who wants to stick to their beliefs but also engage others more productively and generously, this book is a good primer. In the end, it gave me hope for a less defensive, more openhearted tomorrow.

“We can practice empathy and disagreement with people who are different than us,” he writes, “perhaps some of whom are friends in the making.” (Zondervan)

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