You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said and I tell you so. You say:
- Everybody is entitled to their opinion.
- Why are you so difficult?
- nothing, and look surly or distraught.
The first example is a ‘non-answer’, designed to stifle discussion and debate. I may have information you don’t have about the topic. Telling me ‘it’s just my opinion’ rather than engaging with the opinion or assertion of ‘fact’ achieves nothing except to silence me. Your original statement remains unchallenged and unchallengeable, because anything anyone might say is ‘just opinion’. This isn’t true. Not everything is opinion.
Academics are trained to research a topic until they know it inside and out. That doesn’t mean there can’t be new data at any time, that may shift the scholar’s position once uncovered. It does, however, mean the scholar is considered ‘an expert’ who has authority to speak on the topic. This authority has come with years of work and constantly challenging assertions and so-called common sense beliefs. It has not come from reading an article in the newspaper and then citing that article for the next year as authoritative.
Newspapers are not authoritative. Research is, as carried out by academics and other knowledge workers across many sectors who read widely, ask questions, observe, and engage in constant discussion and debate on a topic.
What you read in The Australian about climate change is not authoritative. What you read from the Union of Concerned Scientists is.
The second response (that I am being difficult) is also a non-answer, but a more aggressive one in which I am positioned as an unreasonable person who won’t let a person speak freely. This answer, while serving the same purpose as the first (to silence me), is, I would argue, pernicious. It allows statements that commit symbolic violence to go forth and prosper.
You’re not racist/sexist/nationalist – I’m just difficult.
I’ll admit it. I’m contrarian when people unreflexively reproduce stereotypes and prejudice that keep us from progressing towards a more egalitarian/cosmopolitan/sustainable society.
I will tell you I disagree with you when you say things that maintain hegemonic structures such as white privilege. Calling me difficult when I tell you I disagree is tantamount to saying you don’t care that you are privileged, and in fact you bloody well like it this way, so bugger the global south/Indigenous Australians/asylum seekers/women… Why don’t you try an honest approach and just admit it – the status quo benefits you – rather than obfuscating the point by trying to dismiss me as difficult?
But wait, you meant no harm? That is why I will disagree with you respectfully. People often reproduce stereotypes while meaning no harm. Wouldn’t you like to know that’s what you did though, so you don’t do it again? And please tell me when I say something unintentionally offensive or inaccurate.
The third one, silence (often surly silence), is spectacularly disingenuous – you get to be a victim of this difficult contrarian. Make sure your eyes look pained in your silence so everyone around you can see that I’m picking on you. In fact, I’m the elitist one, sharing what I’ve learned as a researcher, ‘me and my fucking education’. Yes, it’s awful that I have learned many things that have made me want to do more so that more people in the world can feed themselves and have choices in their lives as to what and where they will eat, study, work, marry, vote, live.
Rather than being so wounded when I tell you I disagree with you and why, try something different. Try saying, ‘Really? Tell me more. I’m interested.’ There should be nothing threatening about learning something new, something that may even change your mind. It’s okay to change your mind. I’ll change mine if you provide compelling evidence for me to do so.
You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said, but I say nothing.
- You believe I agree with you.
- I feel dishonest for not saying what I think/know.
- Your peace is kept, mine is disturbed.
If the world is to distribute resources and power more equally amongst all its people, then for me to imply with my silence that I agree with your statement that is promoting ignorance or prejudice is for me to support the very hegemony I am suggesting we should contest. I become complicit. My silence extends the symbolic violence of your words by giving the impression of consent.
I am then a lesser person for my intellectual dishonesty. I have remained silent and allowed you to believe that your comment about ‘those uncivil people of…’ was acceptable. I am unhappy with my silence, but I am so well versed in what happens (1, 2 or 3) that I have learned to pick my battles and ‘get along well enough’. In getting along well enough with you, I have failed to protect the voiceless. I have not used my own privilege to fight for the rights of others. I am wasting my privilege so that you may maintain yours.
You say a thing. I disagree with the thing you said, and I tell you so. You say:
- Really? Tell me more. I’m interested.
This piece was subsequently cross-posted to The Drum.