COLUMN: The gentle art of the disagreement

Differing opinions can work as a strength

I remember some amazing discussions we used to have.

They happened in the mid-1990s, when I started working at the Summerland Review. We had a two-person newsroom here back then. Bill Hodgson was the editor at the time, and he and I agreed on very little.

We had differing opinions on politics, social issues and community decisions of the day.

And yet we respected each other’s insights.

Writing editorials — which are supposed to represent the position of the paper, not the individual writer — involved plenty of discussion. Each of us asked whether a position could represent the voice of the paper, and more importantly, whether it could hold up to scrutiny.

The process worked because neither of us was trying to change the other’s mind. We simply wanted to offer a fair and accurate analysis of a topic.

Our disagreements turned out to be one of our greatest strengths.

If we had both held the same opinions, the editorials would not have been as strong. We would not have been able to consider a different perspective in the same way.

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I watched the same positive spirit of disagreement elsewhere during those years.

Summerland’s municipal council of the day, during Don Cameron’s first term as mayor, had members of council who did not see eye to eye.

Three of the seven members of that council were on the political right, three were on the left and one was difficult to categorize.

And yet that council seldom had split votes.

The discussions at the table could get spirited, but in the end, the members were usually able to find common ground.

This was also the time when Juergen Hansen, in the Summerland neighbourhood of Trout Creek, was promoting the consensus process as a way of reaching decisions.

Instead of voting yes or no on a question, the consensus process had participants discussing and reworking a statement until it became something all could endorse.

In the years following, I’ve watched a change in the way some choose to voice their disagreements.

Discussions became quite heated when land use issues in the early 2000s had people firmly entrenched in one of two camps.

And on a national scale, I’ve watched as political dialogue at times devolved into what one friend of mine has described as “slogan bashing,” with one-line insults replacing dialogue.

I remember wondering if respectful disagreement was a thing of the past.

But then, a few years ago, a friend introduced me to a short book by Christian scholar Ravi Zacharias.

The Lotus And The Cross, published in 2001, is a fictional conversation between Jesus and Buddha.

Before writing the book, Zacharias sat down with Buddhist friends and acquaintances to make sure his presentation of Buddhist teachings was as accurate and as respectful as possible.

The efforts of achieving fairness and accuracy are admirable.

Zacharias, who died last week at the age of 74, inspired me for being willing to consider views other than his own, and for taking a kind, gentle tone in his presentation.

Around the same time as I was reading Zacharias’s book, I saw the same kind and gentle tone when I covered a presentation about Islam.

The speaker, Mohammad Aslam Shad, president of Vancouver’s Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’ was extremely tactful and respectful, no matter what questions were ask of him.

If any of the people I have mentioned would have taken a different approach, belligerently “telling it like it is,” I would not have paid much attention to what they had to say.

As it is, some of the discussions with Bill, debates around the Summerland council table and other conversations have made me stop and reconsider.

And in a few cases, my opinions have changed as a result.

I hope others can say the same about discussions they have had with me.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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