How do we deal with disagreements? I have been thinking about this a lot in the context of recent political events that have polarised public opinion, including the Brexit referendum and the independence referenda in both Scotland and Catalonia. From a purely observational perspective it seems we more or less follow the same mechanisms when dealing with disagreement: we shout and fight, we get mad with others, we put forward our arguments and most of the time we pretend that we listen to someone else’s. Then we sulk and retreat, in some occasions for a few minutes and some other times forever. The matter that we disagree with seems to be put in the back of our heads, but is it really there?
Perhaps more interesting that the external manifestations is the internal process of dealing with disagreement. What, from inside us, drives our reaction? Why is it that in many cases we are capable of reflecting ex post that the way we have behaved is incorrect but still do it again exactly the same over and over again? Why is it too hard for us to accept other people’s views, or at the very least cope with the fact that they are entitled to their opinion? More importantly, perhaps, how do we move on from the frustration that disagreement may bring, accepting that is a fact of life, rather than allowing it to surface every now and them and make us eternally bitter, with ourselves and with others? It seems, at least for some, that conflict and confrontation are hardwired into our human nature (a discussion about this can be found here), so this may explain our tendencies to disagree, to rebel against others challenging our closely held beliefs. The physical representation of disagreement in imagery has ranged from direct depictions of wars, insurrection and other atrocities, animals looking horns; to indirect representations via symbols of disagreement (eg thumbs ups / thumbs down, signs pointing in different directions, etc). But the process of dealing with conflict internally, and the stages this process goes through, may be harder to depict. One way of trying to make sense of this is to look at Kohlberg’s moral development theory (see link to the relevant Wikipedia page here), which describes various stages of moral reasoning within humans, typically moving up as we age (but in some cases with people being stuck in a particular stage for a very long time, regardless of their age) and which tries to explain the evolution of the motivations behind our reasoning when dealing with moral dilemmas, including conflicts / disagreements. Without going too deep into this, the stages could be summarised as follows:
- Obedience / punishment orientation: when actions / decisions are dictated by the need to avoid punishment
- Self-interest orientation: when actions are determined purely by a personal gain motivation
- Interpersonal accord and conformity: when actions are determined by social customs / norms and the need to conform to social standards.
- Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: when actions derive from a desire to conform to legality and to maintain order / status quo
- Social contract orientation: when actions derive from a desire to achieve the greater good for the majority of people, understanding and respecting the opinions of others.
- Universal ethical principles: when decisions are driven by abstract reasoning about what is just, rather than on norms and conventions.
Most of the stages shown above are observable at some point of individual and social development, except perhaps for the last one which appears to be theoretical (Kohlberg believed it existed but could not find any examples of it)(1). While this theoretical framework about our moral motivations may be disputed by many (2), it does provide a basis for the graphic exploration of the different ways in which we deal with conflict / disagreement, perhaps by looking at ways of illustrating the behaviours associated with these stages, or by depicting signs/situations that may evoke feelings associated with such stages: punishment, greed, social conformity, law and order, respect for others and justice/fairness. Another approach would be to emphasise, within the photo essay, only a few stages over the rest, by way of commentary on what one feels about the lack of evolution of our moral compass as a society and how the system seems to operate at one stage on paper (eg social contract) while many individuals seem to operate under a moral compass seemingly motivated mostly by self-interest or fear of authority / social order.
- Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. 2017. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
- Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. 2017. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html. [Accessed 07 November 2017].