Feel Free to Disagree

Daniel Natal '19
Guest Columnist

Thank you for disagreeing with me. It is not an easy thing to do, I know. I am human, and we humans have fragile thoughts. We treat our ideas like children, often playing the role of the careful parent. We trust each other with the nebulous constellations in our minds and have every instinct to take offense when others fail to treat them gently. It takes a tremendous internal courage to take criticism and disagreement well—and even more to give it.

What could be more daunting, after all, than speaking your mind to contradict the thoughts of another? It is one thing to have the mettle and bravery to bare the abstractions in your head for all to hear and see, and an entirely different thing to be the person, often in the minority, to point out the flaws and imperfections within that construct. How many acquaintances have been offended, ill-feelings birthed, and friendships lost from the direct consequences of our outspoken disagreements? It is human nature to be wounded by an opposing voice, and yet we often choose to brave the risk of hurting others to offer our own dissent. 

What we must implicitly realize, and what we are inclined to ignore when it is our turn to have our opinions disputed, is just how useful disagreement can be. The world would be dramatically different if people kept their disagreement to themselves. Ideas would be furthered on one, often imperfect perspective. The devastating inefficiency of trial and error would become our only practical critique in a world full of nodding heads. The foundations of our society would be built on flawed premises. Indeed, the foundation of our profession is built on disagreement: without it, lawyers would find themselves without a cause in an already amicable and agreeable world.  

Perhaps the most important dissents come from the unpopular or contentious opinions that contravene a majority-held belief. Too often we adopt opinions because of their popularity and make them our own without ever developing the rationale or logic behind them. In a world in which we are constantly surrounded by people who similarly hold a belief, we are sometimes never asked to substantiate our opinion. Absent any challenge, the details that made up the groundwork of our belief become obscure; our opinion morphs into an intuition, based not in logic but in feeling, and incapable of being either expressed or defended from those who would seek to test it. 

Intellectual disagreement provides a forum to improve our thoughts, and provides an opportunity to cultivate our opinions and ideas. When someone confronts the logic behind our opinions, we are forced to think through them. No longer are we permitted to allow logic and reason to disappear into the foreground in such instances—dissent forces us to preserve the original reasons behind the formulation of our opinion, and share them with another. If the challenge is met, and we come to reinforce our reasoning through verbalization, then we are more prepared to support our opinions in the future. 

Dissent from a commonly-held belief has the added benefit of forcing us to reassess societal norms. It is a healthy and necessary thing in our world to question what we have otherwise come to take for granted. There is no harm to be found in being open-minded to such ventures; if we find the norm to be validated and demonstrably worth supporting, we can continue believing it, developing it, and urging people to join in it. Should the opposite be true, however, and the idea be antiquated or otherwise outdated, we are shaken loose from the self-reinforcing cycle of approval and acceptance that encourages potentially harmful customs. Disagreement with a popular outlook is, in this way, an invaluable societal safeguard. 

Voicing a different view is a thankless responsibility. There are few things as difficult and as necessary as providing a dissenting voice. As law students, we should be mindful of this persisting truth, and make every effort within ourselves to resist the temptation to exhibit hostility towards people who disagree with us—their objections will, ultimately, do us a service by providing us an opportunity to solidify and tangibly articulate the otherwise undeveloped ideas in our mind. No useful purpose is served when we deter future disagreement with our in-class arsenal of whispered rebukes, exasperated sighs, and condescending eye-rolls.

Fear of backlash from the classroom often suppresses free thought and leads people to qualify and marginalize their own opinions when they differ from someone else’s. Consistently negative responses to disagreement inspire a general reluctance to disagree with one another in a classroom environment. Dissenters are forced to tiptoe, adopting gentle, neutral phrases like “pushback” to mask a difference of opinion under a placid veil, hoping to avoid triggering their peers’ sensitivities. Many of us have, at some point, villainized another student for their academic and intellectual discourse when it deviates from our own point of view. Perhaps our student body could do a little better to keep our minds open to the harmless nature of disagreement. Civil disagreement should be viewed as a continuation of our thought process, not an attempt to destroy it.  

We could all learn a thing or two from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” It wouldn’t hurt for many of us to remind ourselves of the truth behind Mr. Emerson’s words. And to those of you who do choose to speak up, have the nerve to say what nobody else might be thinking, andswim against the current of popular thought and directly into the maws of widespread criticism: thank you. You are appreciated, even if it often goes unsaid.