‘Conflicted’ Captures the Need for Disagreement in Public Life


As an avid user of twitter, I have long been interested in how individuals behave differently on the platform compared to real life. Lockdowns confined us all to doom scrolling, looking at the latest scary statistics and feeling an immense sense of dread. Yet the criticism twitter has long received politically is nothing new. Condemned as a platform where meaningful political discourse is near obsolete, it sometimes feels like reasoned discussion is impossible.

Would that be the case in real life? Online, it’s easy to respond to a tweet with a sharp, impulsive jibe, forgetting that there is another human being at the end of the phone. I do wonder whether all of us would be so cutting and easy to dismiss the other side if the conversations were taking place in person. That is precisely the issue that is at the heart of Ian Leslie’s book ‘Conflicted’. One of the most interesting contemporary figures, his subtitle reads ‘why arguments are tearing us apart and how they can bring us together’. Thus, this is a book, unlike so many others, defending the principle of disagreeing and having out conflicts.

Leslie explores multiple themes in his book which manage to go far beyond contemporary politics in how disagreement can actually benefit societies. It is a book rooted in human psychology, analysing the notion of how, as humans, it can be all too easy to nod along with an idea presented by someone with the loudest voice, rather than challenging their opinion.

Why can conflict work? Leslie’s book provides the argument that, by seeing things from the other perspective, we can reach a better solution. If conflict is not allowed to emerge, a groupthink can develop where different ideas do not properly come to the forefront. By being forced to defend our point of view against someone who disagrees, we can come to understand why we think in the manner in which we do.

The book offers a positive message which highlights lots of studies showing how having arguments out - rather than keeping disagreements simmering below the surface - can lead to a more meaningful life. Couples which had arguments in a productive way were happier. Bands where the different members aired their disagreements were more likely to be successful. Having an argument out, which is the bedrock of democracy, was something that deserved celebration.

Alongside the examples of where conflict worked were a broad set of principles to try and apply within discussion. While this could have presented the book as self help - not one of my favourite genres - Leslie managed to avoid this trap and talk about ideas relating to conflict in an empathetic, detailed manner. Basic ideas such as recognising your opponent’s argument may have merits and trying to reason in a calm manner all shows where conflict can be beneficial.

At times it did feel like the book was swerving from one example to another and it would have perhaps benefited from using fewer examples in more depth. Similarly, I felt what was slightly ignored was the ability to argue on an equal basis. A worker may not like their company’s policy but, unfortunately, they are hardly in the same position of authority as their CEO to make their feelings known. Such is the way of the world, individuals may sometimes keep their true feelings hidden simply to ensure their employment security.

Nonetheless, it is a read all politicians most certainly could benefit from. In these febrile times, it cuts through that conflict can only take place in an unpleasant manner once and for all. Rather, ‘Conflicted’ is a book built on the basis that many of the progressive changes we enjoy today would not have taken place without the benefits of debate and argument. Nelson Mandela is often citied as an example of an individual willing to talk to and even forgive those who wanted to imprison him. Mandela could have easily decided never to forgive but instead wanted to move on.

Indeed, all of us can get used to watching dramas that end up involving hostage negotiations. Tense, fraught and a quite literal life or death situation, the manner in which hostage negotiators operate is utterly crucial. Leslie demonstrates that, often, conceding to your opponent can, surprisingly, make safety and the protection of life more likely. It is this, more than anything else in the book, which demonstrated to me that conflict must be a part of our lives if they are to have any meaning at all.

‘Conflicted’ can be ordered here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/conflicted/ian-leslie/9780571346943

Image - Conflicted/Faber and Faber/Ian Leslie