Now More Than Ever, We Need Winsome Disrupters
We must prepare for a cultural maelstrom this fall. Midterm elections will exacerbate divisive shifts within political parties that many traditionally look to for core identity. College campuses will face the aftermath of Supreme Court decisions that have exacerbated deep divides on intimate issues. These increasingly invasive frictions are likely to push us further into social tribes and social media, where we brook little nuance for anything but the bluntest versions of one another’s beliefs. It’s getting personal, and we’re not listening anymore.
That is why we need winsome disrupters. Disruption is necessary if we are to stop the spiral, fill in our civic ruts, and throw out the existing outrage scripts. But we must disrupt well, in ardent and disarming ways that draw people to us rather than just getting us past them. Otherwise we will continue fighting, self-censoring, and isolating. Instead of the trade-offs so typical these days, imagine disrupting the usual us/them campus dynamics by cultivating genuine curiosity toward controversial speakers or ideas. Imagine disrupting the endless declarations and subtweets of Twitter with encouraging questions and invitations to clarify.
We can disrupt distilled and desperate versions of ourselves with a winsome fascination toward one another. Thankfully, we have clearer and clearer indications that hearing about the stories of others, far more than the facts they possess, can engender mutual respect and make it easier to disagree over things. Through story and better conversation we can get deeper and more constructive with one another, extending the benefit of the doubt sooner and diffusing potential landmines before they explode. We can disrupt the assumption that a potential confrontation is just not worth the effort.
Winsome disruption, counter to the stupid culture we face, starts with tenacious curiosity: the humble work of delving past the initial emotions of catastrophic disagreement cultivated by our tribal nature into what we share. From there, we take the time to develop some warmth and connection before debating seemingly alien or hostile beliefs.
How do we take up this difficult work? By telling better stories and having better conversations.
Tell Better Stories
Our age is defined by the assumption that we already know the other person’s story — that their race tells us their likely backgrounds, or that a college student’s status as “first generation” means they lack preparedness. From the 1619 Project to MAGA, we are lobbied and shoved around by narratives about ourselves, our neighbors, and our institutions that seem to demand allegiance. Too often we clash with others through the haze of these blunt and incomplete stories.
It can therefore be disruptive, in the best of ways, to sidestep the usual narratives about race, class, and gender, and actually ask somebody more about their beliefs and background. If we never ask, we can never know what idiosyncrasies and contradictions characterize their beliefs, where they have acute pain we should respect, and where we might agree on something.
Any of this knowledge can help us be more patient, inquiring, and strategic in our dialogues. As we learn and share more, we make one another objects of intense curiosity — after all, we truly love to talk about ourselves. Activating that inclination can help us learn what we share and why we hurt, all the better to approach what we don’t share with clearer knowledge and insight.
If practiced well, this can be joyful work. Questions and statements like I’m curious what led you to that belief? and I come to this idea because throughout my life I . . . help us first uncover what we share, where our stories surprisingly overlap, and how our goals intersect (even if our strategies do not). This takes vulnerability and courage, but it can swiftly lower the heat and uncover mutual passions that soften us to each other.
Many of the restrictive, identity-driven stories we are immersed in today preclude us from perceiving layered beliefs and intriguing contradictions. The stories we tell are telling about us, and they need to change. We need to clothe ourselves in fuller stories that create new motivation to work together, rejoicing in shared loves before debating how best to serve them.
Have Better Conversations
How do we set ourselves at ease to even begin sharing stories? Too often our brains freeze as we approach difficult topics, leading to silence or aggression. Yet a simple formulation can help us crack open conversation with colleagues, friends, and family we typically find impassable: clarify, affirm, and question.
Clarifying helps us avoid incorrect assumptions about a person’s beliefs or ideas before we react. This can be a radical act in a society losing the ability to ask questions and engage in basic conversation. Questions like “Can I just make sure I understand what you’re saying?” and “Could you connect those two points for me?” invite others to move past the platform version of their beliefs and into more constructive dialogue.
Affirming is often synonymous with clarifying — disarming others by pointing out areas of agreement. In our divisive landscape any agreement can feel like a concession. Yet simply stating “I think we really agree about …” harms no one and can blur those vague, plaguing notions of divergence between us.
If we’ve been winsome in these ways, questioning then allows both parties to ask harder questions about weak points or lack of evidence with an aura of genuine interest, rather than aggression. Statements like “I’m still not seeing how these relate” or “Interesting, but I’m not sure you’re accounting for ...” become the utterances of a co-thinker, not a co-sparrer.
By and large, we’re all looking to be free and open with each other. It gets harder every day, but we are not alone in our experiences of doubt and frustration. Reaching out is the best we can do, creating better cultures of curiosity around us that disarm others with gentleness and create space for genuine growth.
Check out this free resource from Heterodox Academy that distills much of this essay’s suggestions into a portable tool for winsome disruption.
Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.