Might Disagreement Fade Like Violence?

Violence was quite common during much of the ancient farming era. While farmers retained even-more-ancient norms against being the first to start a fight, it was often not easy for observers to tell who started a fight. And it was even harder to get those who did know to honestly report that to neutral outsiders. Fighters were typically celebrated for showing strength and bravery, And also loyalty when they claimed to fight “them” in service of defending “us”. Fighting was said to be good for societies, such as to help prepare for war. The net effect was that the norm against starting fights was not very effective at discouraging fights during the farming era, especially when many “us” and “them” were in close proximity.

Today, norms against starting fights are enforced far more strongly. Fights are much rarer, and when they do happen we try much harder to figure out who started them, and to more reliably punish starters. We have created much larger groups of “us” (e.g., nations), and use law to increase the resources we devote to enforcing norms against fighting, and the neutrality of many who spend those resources. Furthermore, we have and enforce stronger norms against retaliating overly strongly to apparent provocations that may have been accidental. We are less impressed by fighters, and prefer for people to use other ways to show off their strength and bravery. We see fighting as socially destructive, to be discouraged. And as fighting is rare, we infer undesired features about the few rare exceptions, such impulsiveness and a lack of empathy.

Now consider disagreement. I have done a lot of research on this topic and am pretty confident of the following claim (which I won’t defend here): People who are mainly trying to present accurate beliefs that are informative to observers, without giving much weight to other considerations (aside from minimizing thinking effort), do not foresee disagreements. That is, while A and B may often present differing opinions, A cannot publicly predict how a future opinion that B will present on X will differ on average from A’s current opinion on X. (Formally, A’s expectation of B’s future expectation nearly equals A’s current expectation.)

Of course today such foreseeing to disagree is quite commonplace. Which implies that in any such disagreement, one or both parties is not mainly trying to present accurate estimates. Which is a violation of our usual conversational norms for honesty. But it often isn’t easy to tell which party is not being fully honest. Especially as observers aren’t trying very hard very to tell, nor to report what they see honestly when they feel inclined to support “our” side in a disagreement with “them”. Furthermore, we are often quite impressed by disagreers who are smart, knowledgeable, passionate, and unyielding. And many say that disagreements are good for innovation, or for defending our ideologies against their rivals. All of which helps explain why disagreement is so common today.

But the analogy with the history of violent physical fights suggests that other equilibria may be possible. Imagine that disagreement were much less common, and that we could spend far more resources to investigate each one, using relatively neutral people. Imagine a norm of finding disagreement surprising and expecting the participants to act surprised and dig into it. Imagine that we saw ourselves much less as closely mixed groups of “us” and “them” regarding these topics, and that we preferred other ways for people to show off loyalty, smarts, knowledge, passion, and determination.

Imagine that we saw disagreement as socially destructive, to be discouraged. And imagine that the few people who still disagreed thereby revealed undesirable features such as impulsiveness and ignorance. If it is possible to imagine all these things, then it is possible to imagine a world which has far less foreseeable disagreement than our world, comparable to how we now have much less violence than did the ancient farming world.

When confronted with such an imaged future scenario, many people today claim to see it as stifling and repressive. They very much enjoy their freedom today to freely disagree with anyone at any time. But many ancients probably also greatly enjoyed the freedom to hit anyone they liked at anytime. Back then, it was probably the stronger better fighters, with the most fighting allies, who enjoyed this freedom most. Just like today it is probably the people who are best at arguing to make their opponents look stupid who enjoy our freedom to disagree today. Doesn’t mean this alternate world wouldn’t be better.

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