Agreeing to disagree in good faith

26th July 2018

As a society, we have lost the art of good faith disagreement.

That deficit manifests itself in two ways. First, there is a tendency to treat our opponents as enemies, motivated by ulterior, undisclosed factors, as monsters who argue without sincerity and in bad faith. Secondly, when our friends and allies say or do something we disagree with, we hold back from telling them why we think that they are wrong. After all, criticism is something you do to your enemies: not your friends.

I suspect that most of us have been guilty of these sins. It is important that we try to do better.

Quilliam Perspective starts from the position that disagreement is as important as consensus. When it comes to the centrality of liberal democratic values and the fundamental nature of human rights, we aim to speak with one voice. But within those boundaries, we should cherish dissent. It is only by testing our ideas that we can either perfect or, if necessary, adapt them.

Our era is marked by acute political polarisation. That polarisation has, in turn, encouraged a conspiracist understanding of the world. There has been a stampede to the most extreme points of the political spectrum. Once-reasonable people seek to justify their convictions, irrespective of the lack of evidence supporting them. Liberal and democratic institutions have been weakened. Our society’s discourse is characterised by outrage and sometimes aggression.

That political polarisation has been fed by our inability to argue with both friends and opponents in a sincere and open manner. Let’s take one example, With a few notable exceptions, both politicians and commentators failed to address concerns over grooming gangs, because this was an issue around which far Right was organising. That default then disqualified – in the eyes of many – liberal and mainstream politicians from addressing the concomitant bigotry against Muslims in general which that the far Right was also promoting.

Those who oppose extremism in the round face what Maajid Nawaz has described as the ‘Triple Threat’: the far Right, the far Left and the Islamists. Only by showing a solidarity with each other – one that allows for disagreement in good faith – can we counter that Triple Threat.

The starting point should be as follows. We should treat people with whom we disagree with respect. Some may be evil. Some may indeed be arguing in bad faith. But, most of the time, the worst one can say about our opponents is that they are wrong, and that their ideas should not be implemented. We should treat them as sincere and honest, unless there are sound reasons to believe otherwise. Likewise, we should not shy away from public debate with our friends, even when we want to tell them that they have made mistakes.

On these pages, we will do our best to explore ideas for addressing extremism, to restore civility in dissent, and to promote the values upon which a healthy liberal democracy is grounded.

That is the approach upon which this journal, and Quilliam itself, is founded.