Liking people & good disagreement

As various strikes break out across the public sector – and seem to show no signs of abating any time soon – an interesting, but deeply unsurprising, phenomena is notable. There seems to be a correlation between people liking an individual and people adopting their views. So, if you find Mick Lynch a seemingly likable sort of bloke, you may well be quite supportive of the RMT. If you find him an odious little wretch, chances are you’ll be sympathetic to the government. If you happen to dislike the government and the unions, there are all sorts of other grounds on which you might make up your mind (some might even do so on the grounds of the actual arguments themselves).

But it is a notable phenomenon. The more I like somebody, the more likely I am to agree with them. The less I like somebody, the less likely I am to agree with them. And by ‘I’, I really mean all of us. Certainly, it is easier for us to hear opposing arguments when they are coming from people we like. Which is really quite dangerous when you think about it, isn’t it!

It is in my mind because of a discussion we were having as elders. As happens from time to time, we disagreed among ourselves. But it was good to be able to disagree and air our views frankly without it being personal or unpleasant. I flippantly said it was easier because I happened to like them both (which I really do!) I would be lying if I said that wasn’t true. It is easier to hear them because I do like them.

But, my brother quickly pointed out, that is very dangerous. Which I agreed – I didn’t think any different. I was just being a bit flippant after a somewhat intense discussion. Neverthess, I admit it is easier to hear them because I like them, but I equally recognise that should not and cannot be the controlling dynamic of any discussion. Even if I didn’t like them so much, we should still be able to disagree civilly. Liking them doesn’t make their arguments any better and not liking someone else so much doesn’t make their arguments worse. After all, arguments don’t come with personalities even if they are put forward by people who do.

But there is something in us that tends to believe more readily the arguments of people we like and trust. But this is so dangerous if it controls us. It is how false teachers are able to spread all sorts of damnable doctrine among many. They do not come with pitchforks and horns branded on the forehead with the word ‘heretic’. They come plausibly, with a likability that draws people in. Their arguments, false and damaging as they may be, are heard because the guy is so kind, so lovely, so friendly.

It is how many abusive leaders or church members continue to do what they do. There is always a ready made group of people willing to defend them. Not on the grounds of their solid doctrine necessarily or the rightness of their case. But they were so kind, so nice, so friendly to me. I can’t believe they would treat anyone else like that. I believe them because I like them.

It is, interestingly, an issue that many of the prophets had to contend with. Few of the prophets were listened to by a great many people. Clearly this was not because of the value and rightness of their message. It was, after all, the very words of God to his people. But, without putting too fine a point on it, more than a few of them came across as total weirdos. It isn’t that hard to imagine – though no doubt a great many people didn’t like the message – plenty weren’t overly inclined towards the messenger either.

Even for those of us who are very much centred on argument, and hearing an argument as well as we can, and less concerned with the people we’re arguing with, there will always be this element. We find it much easier to hear the arguments of those we love, or perhaps more accurately, of those we know love us. But even just hearing arguments is not the point at issue. I can listen to the arguments of people I don’t like very much at all and I can weigh their arguments, to some degree, on their own terms. The question is, when we disagree, how we find a means of moving forward and how we continue to work together irrespective of whether we’re likely to go out for drinks together at the end of the day.