CUMMINGS: The power of trustful disagreement

July 7, 2013 

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, disagreement is good!” Yes, good ole dissent and disagreement and even arguing can lead to wonderful things -- if we trust each other.

In the late afternoon of July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress (13 Colonies) came together to vote on our independence. What an exciting moment as each one cast a vote! But the excitement died as the vote was counted: 9 to 4. Talk about disagreement!

Did an eruption take place? Screaming and shouting and racial slurs bantered about? Did the nine Colonies gang up on the four and drown them in accusations of treason? No. We really do not know what words were used during the next three days, but by the time the document was ready for publication July 4, three of the dissenting colonies had voted yes, and New York would agree a week later. What happened? What could bring the Federalists and the Republicans together? Only one thing: in the midst of their arguments, they trusted each other.

Now, I’m glad there were differences that day. I’m pleased there was debate and disagreement and dissent. After all, the vote for independence meant War. Signing this document meant fortunes would change, families would split, and people would die. England was not going to let their only source of income dry up at a time when they were going bankrupt. No sir! The Colonies were going to pay for this insubordination. So this was not a “slam-dunk” decision for these 13 Colonies; they had to argue out every possibility. But they also had to trust each other or we would not have our nation today.

We’ve all seen dissent without trust. When I think you’re lying to me or I remember when you did, my arguments become tinged with sarcasm and laced with emotion. My disagreement is ugly and shameful and ineffectual. Think about it: nothing grates on your ear worse than the screaming accusations in a government meeting where the disagreement has nothing to do with the facts, where the members are not interested in the people they serve but in the power they crave; where debate is not to shed light on the subject, but to fuel fodder for the media.

We need trustful dissent. We need it at work; we need it at home; we need it in our clubs; we even need it in our churches. But most of all, we need it in our government meetings: at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. Oh, we have dissent, plenty of it. Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and liberals; blacks and whites. We know how to disagree. But when are we going to learn how to trust each other?

Our Founding Fathers had the same kind of differences; they didn’t agree on everything, In fact, we know they had many debates, but somewhere along the line they learned how to trust that their opponents were not lying. Once this foundation is laid, I can begin to follow these three simple rules for disagreement:

1. Ask for Clarification. Always start a disagreement with a question: “Could you clarify the Obamacare ruling on mandatory government insurance?”

2. Listen intently. Most people find this impossible. If I disagree with how I think this new government health care system is going to affect me I’ve got my mind made up, and I don’t want to hear any more.

3. Be respectful. We have a phrase imbedded in our culture: “I respectfully disagree.” After I have listened to all the reasons why we need socialized medicine, I need to state my reasons for capitalism with sincere respect.

We will always have differences, but we can begin to solve them once we trust each other. I am convinced we can do this. Slowly.

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