Learning to Disagree Well

In her first Annual Address to Senate House since her inauguration in July as Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, Deborah Prentice highlighted the imperative for university students to learn to “disagree well” on difficult subjects.  To facilitate this learning, Prentice intends to moderate a series of “dialogues” at Cambridge, in which experts challenge each other on the pressing issues of the day.

I welcome this.

Prentice’s initiative is no doubt prompted by the lively public politics in the UK around questions of free speech, cancel culture and academic freedom.  In my view, there is no more pressing issue within the life of universities at the present time.  Students and academics alike are being bullied into tacitly accepting viewpoint orthodoxies, fearing for their reputations and of being castigated for expressing contrarian views and beliefs.

A slew of books have recently been appearing which challenge the chilling climate of self-righteous orthodoxy which has emerged in recent years, among which are Charlan Nemeth’s ‘In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business’ (Basic Books, 2018); Andrew Doyle’s ‘The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World’ (Constable, 2023); Umut Ozkirimli’s ‘Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke’ (Polity, 2023); and Susan Neiman’s ‘Left Is Not Woke’ (Polity, 2023).

But I have been arguing for ‘disagreeing well’ for much longer than the Cambridge Vice-Chancellor.  My 2009 book, ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, (CUP, 2009), argued that unless we bottom-out the reasons why our attitudes and responses towards climate change are so different, we cannot truly claim to be taking the issue seriously.  My dedication of the book noted that disagreement is, or at least should be, a form of learning; without hearing those with whom we disagree, and engaging them in debate and argument, we cannot claim to be living in a functioning public realm, instead merely existing inside a partisan echo-chamber.

Fifteen years later, I regard this to be even truer of the politics of climate change.  There is no one way of dealing with the risks and challenges of climate and those who claim otherwise, and suppress public and political debate because stopping climate change is more important that preserving democracy, are dangerous one-eyed ideologues.  This is the thrust of my most recent book published earlier this year, ‘Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating Climate Politics from Alarmism’ (Polity, 2023).

Mike Hulme, 3 October 2023