Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#4: Compassionate Disagreement

June 07, 2023 Jarrod Blair Episode 4
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#4: Compassionate Disagreement
Show Notes Transcript

When you're having a disagreement with someone about some ethical question, emotions like anger and disgust can flare up and completely hijack the conversation. In this episode, I’m going to make some observations that can help to calm these emotional flare ups, and perhaps even inspire a sense of compassion towards those we so strongly disagree with. 

Outro music: "Sunset Vibes" by user 23843807 on Pixabay

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Compassionate Disagreement 

Welcome back to Virtue Vibes, the podcast where we think hard about how to be good. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today, I’m gonna share four reasons to have compassion for people who disagree with you. In the last episode of Virtue Vibes, titled Credentials and Convincing, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, I talked about how important it is to focus on genuinely convincing people, while remaining genuinely open to being convinced when you’re discussing and debating ethical questions. I also noted how difficult this is to do, because emotions like anger and disgust can flare up, and completely hijack the conversation. In this episode, I’m gonna make some observations that can help to calm these emotional flare ups, and give us a new perspective on the people we so strongly disagree with.  




There’s a lot of talk about how divided society is and how hard it has become to engage with others whose ethical views are very different from our own. And when we’re trying to fix this problem, and trying to understand how to have productive discussions across political, religious, and cultural divides, it's easy to just focus on various conversational tactics that can make these conversations go smoother. The tactics I have in mind are things like ‘be respectful,’ or ‘criticize the idea, rather than the person,’ or even the advice I gave in my last episode titled Credentials and Convincing, which was to focus on genuinely convincing people you disagree with while remaining genuinely open to being convinced, rather than bullying, guilting or lashing out in anger at them. Using tactics like these can really help the quality of these conversations, but what’s even more helpful is if these tactics are used sincerely... 

 In an effort to ‘be respectful,’ you can make your voice sound kind and polite for a while, but if deep down you feel that the person you're talking to is just some walking force of pure evil, then your vocal performance won’t last long. You can try your best to ‘criticize the idea, rather than the person,’ but if deep down you think that they’re just the kind of person who's out to harm the world, or who just doesn’t care, then eventually you're gonna feel compelled to use personal attacks, because in your mind, their bad idea is a natural outgrowth of their evil character, and your personal attack is gonna get to the root of the issue. You might attempt to convince someone and try to stay open to being convinced for a while, but if deep down you feel that their wicked ways have carried them far beyond any hope of changing their mind, and if you feel that there’s nothing you could possibly learn from evil trash like them, then you’ll soon throw efforts to convince out the window, and let the combat ensue.  

Conversational tactics are not enough. We have to confront head on those underlying emotions, perceptions, and beliefs about the people we disagree with, because if you hate the person you’re talking to, if you despise them, if you think they are pure unadulterated evil, then the conversation is doomed before it ever began. 

So today, I want to reevaluate, and perhaps even soothe some of those feelings of hatred, cynicism, and skepticism you might have towards people who disagree with you. I’m going to do this, not by pitching you some wishful thinking, kumbaya story, but by trying to accurately observe some features about them that should give you a new perspective, and perhaps even inspire a sense of compassion towards them.  

Also, I’m going to assume that you really are right, and that the person you are disagreeing with really is wrong, throughout this entire discussion. This is a big assumption, to put it lightly, but doing this helps me to encourage compassion even when you’re confident that someone else is wrong. I’m also hoping this encourages people to offer you the same levels of compassion when they’re confident that you’re the one who’s wrong. 

Alright, with that being said, let’s look at four reasons to have compassion for people who disagree with you. 




I’m a big Batman fanboy, and one of my favorite movies is “The Dark Knight.” There’s a great scene in that movie where Bruce Wayne, the man beneath the mask, is trying to figure out what’s motivating the main villain, the Joker, to commit such heinous crimes. Money? Power? Revenge? Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, then hits batman with one of the best lines of the whole film. With ominous music playing in the background, Alfred leans in close and says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” 

This description of the Joker is really eerie, and it makes for a great villain and for great cinema. But in the real world, things usually aren’t so black and white. I don’t meet many people who just... want... to watch... the world... burn. And this brings me to my first point; people that you disagree with about important ethical questions probably aren’t out to harm the world, that’s probably not their goal or intention. They might just be... incorrect.  

Think for a second about some of the most controversial issues in our society, like abortion, transgender issues, gun control, or Black Lives Matter movement, just to name a few. Then think about a particular person you disagree with on one of these topics. Go ahead and picture them in your mind. It might be an old friend, a family member, or a coworker. Now ask yourself, “are they intentionally trying to harm the world with their beliefs and actions? Or are they just doing what they think is right, even though they are sorely mistaken, which is leading to incredible amounts of harm?” I’m guessing this second description is probably closer to the truth if you’re being completely honest.  

If this is right, and if they're not intentionally trying to make the world a worse place, but rather their mistaken ethical principles are leading them to do so, then your emotions and your attitude towards them should reflect this. It makes sense to have more anger towards someone who was trying to harm the world, like the Joker, than you would towards someone who was trying to do the right thing, but is deeply confused or ignorant.  

 I’m not saying you have to completely overlook all of the harm they are doing just because they didn’t realize it. But I am saying that their good, or neutral, intentions should count for something, and it should influence both how you feel about someone and how you approach confrontation with that person. You might even have some compassion for them, given their well-meaning intentions, and despite their harmful beliefs. The underlying intentions of real people in the real world are quite different than the villains you see on screens.  


-- interlude 


We just talked about how the people you disagree with probably aren’t intending to harm the world, and that they might just be confused or ignorant. The next question to ask, then, is how did they end up being so confused and ignorant? Which brings me to my second point, which is that for a lot of these ethical questions, finding the truth can be quite difficult in a few different ways. 

One is just the difficulty in resisting bad ideas taught by some authority figure in your life. As I’ve mentioned before, there are all kinds of different conflicting ideas about ethics being taught by various authorities in the world. So even if you’ve learned a lot incredibly valuable things from someone, you're bound to be taught some bad ideas. Now think about how difficult it is to go against something you’ve been taught by a parent you love, and who you want to be proud of you. Or perhaps it’s a pastor you admire, and you want them to think well of you, but they say something that’s completely mistaken. Or maybe it’s a teacher or professor you look up to from some fancy institution, who teaches you some awful ideology. In situations like these, it’s extremely difficult, both intellectually and emotionally, to go against what’s being taught and to stand up for what you think is right.  

Another difficulty is just the constant barrage of bad ideas from society in general, which can seep into your soul without you even noticing. This could be from movies, music, books, or internet videos. You can learn bad ideas in conversation with friends, by observing strangers, or by simply going along with whatever groups you happen to be a part of. Society has so many good things offer us, but there’s plenty of garbage as well, and it can be incredibly difficult to remain vigilant and reflective and discerning about which of these ideas you want to take on as your own.  

One last difficulty I'll mention is the potential complexity of the ethical problems themselves. There’s often a large number of factors to consider, and it’s hard to get a full grasp of what’s at stake, especially for big societal issues like gun control or climate change. And for many ethical questions, there’s a bunch of highly intelligent people who believe different things, which might be an indicator that the questions aren't that easy to answer.  

In light of all these sources of difficulty in finding the truth, it should be easier to see how somebody could get it wrong. Remembering this can help you to be more compassionate towards the people you disagree with.  




My third point is this; not only is it difficult to find the truth in the first place, but once you have a false idea it’s also hard to change. It’s really hard to change.  

Think about a time when you’ve been wrong about some important topic. Perhaps it was some political issue or a worldview issue, or some ethical belief that you had. Then try to remember what the process of change looked like for you. Did you completely change your mind during a 15-minute debate? Probably not. It might have taken weeks, months, even years for you to change your mind, along with numerous conversations and experiences. That’s because our beliefs have some inertia to them. Once they’ve been rolling in our minds for a while, it’s hard for them to stop rolling in that direction, right? 

This is why it makes me sad to see people who are so quick to explode and to walk out of somebody’s life; I don’t think they realize or remember what the process of change looks like. And I think that you should be able to show compassion to people who are going through that process because you know how difficult it is yourself. So I would try not to give up on people so quickly, and believe that they can grow and improve their ideas over time.  


At this point, you might be thinking, “But what about those people who are just highly unlikely to ever change their mind. How can you show compassion to somebody who disagrees with you and is never going to change. They’re always going to hold this belief that's going to keep leading them to have harmful effects on the world. How can you show compassion to somebody like that.  

This brings me to my last point, which is probably the most important point that I’m making today. People are so much more than their stance on a given issue. There’s so much more to a person than what their take is on abortion, or on gun control, or on Black Lives Matter. There’s more to them than who they voted for. And when you condense them down into this one dimension when you’re having a disagreement with someone, it makes you blind to all the parts of them that might spark that warm feeling of shared humanity, ya know? Anything about their personality that might inspire you or teach you or make you feel kinship or closeness. All of that fades away when you begin to look at somebody in only one dimension.  

But remember that this person who you disagree with on one of these topics might also be an incredible father, or a loving mother. They might also have a great sense of humor and like some similar music that you do. They might be able to teach you things about their craft. They might be a good listener, and a loyal friend. They might be incredibly giving and selfless and charitable to people around the world, right? There are so many other aspects to somebody’s personality, and when you just trash everything else and focus just on this disagreement that you’re having, your view of people becomes distorted and darkened. It becomes distorted because you’re failing to see the full picture; you're not seeing them wholistically. And your view of them becomes darkened because you're only focusing on the bad idea that they have, which is a negative trait. I have a feeling that many people are experiencing this lately, especially towards members of opposing political ideologies.  

This is a mental trap that I’m very guilty of falling into during my time in academic philosophy. Unlike in other settings, in philosophy you’re actually encouraged to bring up contentious topics where there is lots of disagreement. Doing this brings out some great ideas that you may not have encountered in other settings, but it also brings out a lot of really awful ideas, and hearing these can completely cloud your view of that person if you let it. In graduate school, I started to see the ways in which others were wrong (or what I believed to be wrong) as being their *defining* feature. In other words, I stopped thinking about other philosophy students and professors wholistically, as people with hobbies, families, interests, feelings, etc., and all I could really see was the flaws in their thinking/viewpoints. It didn’t help that I was such a workaholic, and barely spent time with these philosophers outside of the classroom, which could have greatly helped me to humanize them, and to see my colleagues in a more wholistic light. I think my tunnel vision that focused only on the bad ideas of my peers and my professors really hurt my moral character, and I don’t want you don’t fall into the same trap. 

I think a positive example of how to do this is in the relationship between two former U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. From what I understand, these two were fierce opponents in matters of the law, but had an incredibly strong friendship. Antonin Scalia was a bold conservative, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg a bold liberal. Nevertheless, they were able to enjoy conversations, share hobbies, and even go on vacation to India together. I’m sure this kind of connection greatly helped the overall quality of their discussions. even on highly contentious issues.  

So let’s follow their example, and remember to view people wholistically, and to keep in mind the full picture of a person rather than zooming in on only the ways in which we disagree. Maybe we can even spend some time with them doing other things together, which helps us to humanize them, and then when we’re talking about our disagreement hopefully feelings of anger and outrage will be less likely to hijack the conversation.  Seeing people wholistically greatly helps our ability to show compassion towards people we disagree with.  



In summary, I gave four reasons for having some compassion for people you disagree with. First, not everyone’s out to harm the world. A lot of people are just mistaken on important issues. Secondly, it’s really hard to know the truth so it makes sense why a lot of people are mistaken. So you can have some compassion knowing how difficult it is to find the truth. Thirdly, it’s difficult to change once you’re being confronted with a new idea and new reasons. It can take time, reflection, and continued relationship in order to change. It rarely happens overnight. Realize that and be compassionate towards people for that reason. And lastly, remember that people are so much more than their stance on an individual issue. There are so many different qualities and aspects of a person that to write them off because of a disagreement in this one area is incredibly narrow-minded and unhelpful. Try to think of people wholistically. If you do this, then it will be much easier to show compassion amidst disagreement.  

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve also been assuming that you're right and that the person you disagree with really is wrong. But it’s highly unlikely that you are right about every important ethical issue. So for the times when it’s you who’s in the wrong, I hope that people recognize you’re not out to cause harm, that finding the truth can be difficult, that it takes time for you to change, and that there’s so much more to you than your stance on a particular issue.   

So that’s about it for today, but before we end let’s briefly zoom out to see the big picture I’ve been working towards. You might have noticed how much I’ve been talking about how to have quality conversations on ethical issues. In episode 1, titled “Thinking Hard About How to be Good,” I talked about the importance of engaging with ideas different than your own, being able to change your mind, and using precise language. In episode 3, titled “Credentials and Convincing,” I talked about the power of genuinely convincing people while staying genuinely open to being convinced, rather than bullying, guilting, or lashing out in anger. And then in this episode I made some observations that should inspire some compassion amidst disagreement, which can enable us to utilize the conversational tactics discussed in earlier episodes without having our underlying emotions hijack the conversation. I hope I haven’t bored you by talking about conversations so much, and I hope you’ve heard something interesting or helpful in these episodes.  

The reason I’ve spent so much time talking about productive conversations up front is because I’ve seen so many ethical conversations turn out so poorly in my lifetime, so I want to avoid these pitfalls in the Virtue Vibes community. Also, I think this topic really builds the foundation for discussing other topics. It’s the problem that helps us to solve other problems. So as we move forward, let's try our best to remember these lessons, and to encourage others to do the same. Let’s set an example for how to disagree in a healthy and productive way here at Virtue Vibes.  


-Outro Music 


Thanks for tuning into Virtue Vibes. If you think the ideas in this episode are valuable, then consider telling somebody about it. Genuine recommendations from you, the listener, rather than me, the creator, can go a long way. Also, if you have any ideas or connections or assets that you think might help Virtue Vibes to grow, I’d love to hear from you, and I would be eternally grateful. You can find ways to get in touch in the show notes. Thanks for listening. See you soon.