Many people find the very idea of disagreement, and of disagreeing with another human being face to face, terrifying. They arrange their personal and professional lives to avoid disagreements of any kind – particularly those that may generate some level of emotional discomfort.
The roots of this attitude can be found in a range of factors: cultural norms, individual psychological makeup, gender, race, poverty and other forms of marginalisation. Women, for instance, have traditionally been socialised to be agreeable, to acquiesce and to comply.
Under apartheid “baasskap”, or white power, ensured that black South Africans “knew their place”. Being independent of thought or disagreeing with a white person face to face could result in considerable trouble. A highly conditioned and contrived air of agreement became an act of survival for black South Africans.
Today, South Africa is on an often untidy journey towards a democratic future. It has officially eradicated colonialism, apartheid and patriarchy. But the vestiges remain. To challenge these, the country may have to build a mental infrastructure that will enable people to individually and collectively engage in a bold, courageous and truthful dialogue. South Africans will have to learn to candidly confront the many disagreements that are so apparent in their midst.
What role can universities, and particularly law faculties, play in building this mental infrastructure?
Where disagreements build knowledge
There are some places where disagreements are intrinsic to the entire enterprise. Disagreement is a learning experience. Learning comes about through disagreement. Conclusions or “truths” are reached through a process of argument and counterargument. Logic and reasoned analysis are the best method of persuasion. I am referring here, of course, to universities and – given my own particular interest – law faculties.
Law faculties must educate the next generation of legal professionals who may become advocates for others. For the student, this means several things: intellectual disruptions, confronting uncomfortable truths, facing insecurities and fears, and developing the capacity to engage intelligently and effectively in civil debates. All of this has to happen on the path towards becoming a well-rounded, empathetic legal professional.
The advocacy system in the world of law is based on the notion that the nearest truth and the fairest outcome result from two opposing points of view, both strenuously asserted. Presentation to a judge is called oral argument. But even some legally trained people, including legal academics, shy away from vigorous debate in their personal or parts of their professional lives. They worry that arguing is perceived as hostile or a way to silence or demean another.
Learning through disagreement
During 2015, starting with the #Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town and followed by other movements across South Africa, students forced universities to engage in a national conversation about the 1994 transition to democracy. Students voiced their displeasure loudly and vociferously. They imposed across universities a range of divisive and uncomfortable encounters and conversations, particularly around race and “white privilege”.
One of the students’ demands was for “safe spaces” across campuses, a call which has also emerged at US and UK universities in recent years. In South Africa, students insisted they shouldn’t have to confront constant reminders of the country’s authoritarian colonial past.
But the desire for “safe spaces”, although well-intentioned, often allows room only for placard-ready and bumper-sticker statements – not reasoned argument and persuasion. It also reinforces preexisting views that further entrench bias and polarisation – a phenomenon referred to as “confirmation bias”. It precludes open and sincere dialogue about weighty societal issues that may call for nuance and complexity.
As US President Barack Obama put it during a speech in London in April 2016:
If you spend time with people who just agree with you on any particular issue, you become even more extreme in your convictions because you’re never contradicted and everyone just mutually reinforces their perspective.
As I’ve said, this reticence may be a result of culture or socialisation. Yet among many individuals, families, cultures and subcultures, arguing is the way to show caring and engagement. It helps people to honestly and transparently reach understanding and perhaps reconciliation. That has been true for me, growing up in Cape Town’s Coloured community and also, in my experience, among the African-American and Jewish communities in my former home in New York City.
These lessons can be applied in universities.
An act of love
In the setting of a university disagreement should be seen not as a negative impulse or activity, but as an act of love and reconciliation. It is signalling that one cares enough about another’s opinion to engage deeply and question in an effort to understand. It is about working through opposing viewpoints to reach a common understanding, even without ultimate agreement. It is about engaging with the other in a respectful manner by signalling the importance of such engagement.
Honest arguments respectfully made may lead to a deeper understanding, coming to terms with difference, and possibly even reconciliation and compromise. On the other hand, feigned agreement and acquiescence in the face of disagreement, while disregarding the argument of another, risk greater misunderstanding and mistrust.
When disagreement is an act of love, even an occasionally raised voice does not denote an effort to silence the other person. Rather, it’s a sign of engagement and an invitation to participate in a spirited exchange. How can universities, especially law faculties, enable this?
In the wake of continued contestation around the meaning, role and possibilities of the Constitution, law faculties are well-suited to create the space in which contestation and dialogue are nurtured and sustained. The content of individual classes provide fine venues for debate and disagreement.
For example, courses in property law may confront the violence of land confiscation from indigenous communities during colonialism and apartheid, and what that means for the contemporary beneficiaries of such land confiscation. A course on criminal law may confront the law of rape and its impact on victims and society beyond the formal legal rules regarding rape.
Structures could also be introduced that encourage dialogue. UCT’s Law Faculty holds assemblies that are open to all staff and students to discuss items of relevance and concern. Or law faculties could host public conversations that cover controversial topics, such as an event about race, law and transformation that UCT hosted earlier in 2016.
After all, the skill of debate, disagreement and argumentation is the bread and butter of law; one of its most notable features. It may also be one of its most durable contributions to South African democracy.