Disagreement, Ownership, and Language
In memory of W. Barnett Pearce
A commonsense way of thinking about disagreements is that they arise when people have opposing opinions, they have an invested interest in maintaining them, and they have to make a decision. In this framework, our positions are seen as things we own—as our property.
If our opinions are our own (in the sense of being what we own), then entering into disagreement becomes a kind of property management, where we use different strategies and tactics not only to keep what we have, but also sometimes to take another’s property if we can.
To own is not only to possess, but also a challenge to “own-up-to,” which is a kind of coming clean about what one has done. It is a way of accepting responsibility for what one has said.
To see disagreement or conflict in this way easily lends itself to thinking that a solution to the conflict should begin by looking at the different “investments” in the issue—each person’s self-interest. Then we simply find a way to satisfy each person’s interest as much as possible—trying to find what is called a “win-win” solution. This is essentially the strategy of the Harvard Negotiating Project as presented in the book, Getting to Yes.
This all seems so commonsensical because we live, for the most part, in a world that has been constructed around ownership and property. I am the owner of my life and my voice, and whatever I say belongs to me.
This framework, it turns out, is deeply flawed. We are not property. Neither are our ideas. Language is not something we own, but something in which we participate. Right now, we are participating in English. As we participate, the sharing of ideas can become thought provoking and we think new things. We may even change our mind.
In this framework, we see ourselves as constructing a conversation with others rather than living isolated and throwing words at each other. Instead of spending our time defending our property, we spend our time learning how to design new ideas and proposals that will move the conversation forward. We engage in a common learning process.
Our responsibility here is something like “owning what we say,” but now we can speak of it as our responsibility to be present before the other as well as to recognize the other’s presence. It is a matter of personal and relational integrity.
As owners of opinions, disagreement leads us to endless battles over what we already know. As participants in conversations, disagreement leads us to think together about what we do not know.