In 2010, Time magazine made Mark Zuckerberg its person of the year. It described Facebook’s mission as being to “tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world”. During the first decade of mass internet use, this was a popular theory: the more that people were able to communicate with others, the more friendly and understanding they would become, the result being a more peaceable and harmonious world.
In 2021, that vision seems painfully naive. Howling online mobs clash day and night, and some of them commit real-world violence. The internet is connecting people, but it isn’t necessarily creating fellow feeling. At its worst, it can resemble a vast machine for the production of mutual antipathy.
Technology is at least partially responsible for a world in which toxic disagreement is ubiquitous; in which offence seems to be constantly given and taken; in which we do ever more talking and ever less listening. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Graham has observed that the internet is a medium that engenders disagreement by design. Digital media platforms are inherently interactive and, well, people are disputatious.
As Graham puts it, “agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing”. Readers are more likely to comment on an article or post when they disagree with it, and in disagreement they have more to say (there are only so many ways you can say “I agree”). People also tend to get more animated when they disagree, which usually means getting angry.
But while it is tempting to blame Facebook and Twitter for making us this way, that would be to miss the significance of a wider and more profound shift in human behaviour – one that has been decades, even centuries, in the making. Socially, as well as electronically, there are fewer one-way channels than ever. Everyone is starting to talk back to everyone else. If we are becoming more disagreeable, it’s because the modern world demands we speak our minds.
The American anthropologist Edward T Hall introduced a distinction between two types of communication culture: high context and low context. In a low-context culture, communication is explicit and direct. What people say is taken to be an expression of their thoughts and feelings. You don’t need to understand the context – who is speaking, in what situation – to understand the message. A high-context culture is one in which little is said explicitly, and most of the message is implied. The meaning of each message resides not so much in the words themselves, as in the context. Communication is oblique, subtle, ambiguous.
Most of us, wherever we are in the world, are living increasingly low-context lives, as more and more of us flock to cities, do business with strangers and converse over smartphones. Different countries still have different communication cultures, but nearly all of them are subject to the same global vectors of commerce, urbanisation and technology – forces that dissolve tradition, flatten hierarchy and increase the scope for confrontation. It’s not at all clear that we are prepared for this.
For most of our existence as a species, humans have operated in high-context mode. Our ancestors lived in settlements and tribes with shared traditions and settled chains of command. Now, we frequently encounter others with values and customs different to our own. At the same time, we are more temperamentally egalitarian than ever. Everywhere you look, there are interactions in which all parties have or demand an equal voice. Everyone expects their opinion to be heard and, increasingly, it can be. In this raucous, irreverent, gloriously diverse world, previously implicit rules about what can and cannot be said are looser and more fluid, sometimes even disappearing. With less context to guide our decisions, the number of things on which “we all agree” is shrinking fast.
Think about what defines low-context culture, at least in its extreme form: endless chatter, frequent argument; everyone telling you what they think, all the time. Remind you of anything? As Ian Macduff, an expert in conflict resolution, puts it, “the world of the internet looks predominantly like a low-context world”.
If humans were purely rational entities, we would listen politely to an opposing view before offering a considered response. In reality, disagreement floods our brain with chemical signals that make it hard to focus on the issue at hand. The signals tell us that this is an attack on me. “I disagree with you” becomes “I don’t like you”. Instead of opening our minds to the other’s point of view, we focus on defending ourselves.
Animals respond to threat with two basic tactics, first identified by the Harvard biologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915: fight or flight. Humans are no different. A disagreement can tempt us to become aggressive and lash out, or it can induce us to back off and swallow our opinions out of a desire to avoid conflict. These atavistic responses still influence our behaviour in today’s low-context environments: we either get into hostile and mostly pointless arguments, or do everything we can to avoid arguing at all. Both responses are dysfunctional.
You don’t have to look far to see the fight response to disagreement: just open your social media feeds or read the comments section on your favourite website. The internet is reputed to create “echo chambers”, in which people only encounter views they already agree with, but the evidence points in precisely the opposite direction. Research tells us that social media users have more diverse news diets than non-users. You are almost bound to encounter opinions that upset you on Twitter; much more so than if your only information source is a daily newspaper. Instead of creating bubbles, the internet is bursting them, generating hostility, fear and anger.
One reason online discourse is so often so furious is because it has been designed to be this way. Studies have shown that content that outrages is more likely to be shared. Users who post angry messages get the status boost of likes and retweets, and the platforms on which those messages are posted gain the attention and engagement that they sell to advertisers. Online platforms therefore have an incentive to push forward the most extreme versions of every argument. Nuance, reflection and mutual understanding are not just casualties of the crossfire, but necessary victims.
But it would be a profound mistake to conclude from all this that we are arguing too much. The hollow outrage we see online is actually evidence of the absence of real, reflective disagreements: fight as a smokescreen for flight.
It’s often said that if humanity is to rise to the existential threats it faces, we must put our differences aside. But when we all agree – or pretend to – it becomes harder to make progress. Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.
To do so, we will have to overcome a widespread discomfort with disagreement. Disagreeing well is hard, and for most of us, stressful. But perhaps if we learn to see it as a skill in its own right, rather than as something that comes naturally, we might become more at ease with it. I believe we have a lot to learn from those who manage adversarial, conflict-ridden situations for a living; people whose job it is to wring information, insight and human connection out of even the most hostile encounter.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in West Germany, a group of Palestinian terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes. The terrorists made their demands, the authorities refused them. The Munich police resorted to firepower. Twenty-two people were killed, including all the hostages. In the wake of what became known as the Munich Massacre, law-enforcement agencies around the world realised they had an urgent problem. Officers communicating with hostage-takers in order to avoid or minimise violence had no protocol to follow. Police departments realised that they needed to learn negotiation skills.
Hostage negotiators, who may be specialists or trained officers with other responsibilities, are now deployed in a wide range of situations. The best ones are not just expert in tactics; they understand the importance of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “face-work”. In Goffman’s terms, “face” is the public image a person wants to establish in a social interaction. We put effort into establishing the appropriate face for each encounter: the face you want to show a potential boss will be different to the face you want to show someone on a date. This effort is face-work.
With people we trust and know well, we don’t worry so much about face, but with those we don’t know – especially when those people have some power over us – we put in the face-work. When someone puts in face-work and yet doesn’t achieve the face they want, they feel bad. If you strive to be seen as authoritative and someone treats you with minimal respect, you feel embarrassed and even humiliated. In some circumstances you might try to sabotage the encounter to feel better.
People skilled in the art of disagreement don’t just think about their own face; they’re highly attuned to the other’s face. One of the most powerful social skills is the ability to give face; to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. In any conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed,…