We can all search for dignity in disagreement

31 July 2018 | Columns

Justicia Shipena

Serving on different titles to different people and having to socialise with different people from various backgrounds has taught me one thing - it is that people in Namibia love to disagree.

As a journalist, I enjoy getting the chance to expand and elevate discourse about issues that matter most to me. Unfortunately, I have also found that when people disagree, we struggle to form a civil discourse.

At best reasoned arguments fall on deaf ears. At worst, our callous comments cut down those brave enough to act as vanguards. Either way, we lose out on the most valuable part of disagreement: getting an opportunity to rethink our values.

This is not a question of expression per se, but rather it is a question of how we value expression in our community. While we may not always realise it, the big mouths in our surroundings and the ‘trolls’ who aggressively comment on situations are actually adding something to our lives.

These passionate, perhaps bored, people who call out others force us to re-examine the beliefs people hold self-righteously. Disagreement is a vibrant part of any intellectual community, and debate helps us to explore, redefine and reimagine our values and opinions. However, these benefits can only be felt if we simultaneously foster a vibrant culture of respect for every Namibian.

Years along the line, I have experienced first-hand not just official barriers to expression, but also community backlashes for often the silliest reasons.

In response to a photo uploaded on social media, I learned that some people would rather attack an image and its creators, rather than engage them and the feelings they stirred.

Twisted approaches to disagreement have obvious consequences beyond the reactions to images.

Powerful collaborations and events that people have worked on have been threatened because of a belief that if two sets of people disagree on a certain overarching idea, then they cannot learn anything from one another.

Our community itself is allowed to remain fractured. This is not to say it should remain this way, but there is benefit to being forced to thoughtfully engage and re-evaluate beliefs that I held dearly. I know I have benefited from those kind engagements.

Some time ago I truly had to wrestle with the fact that a set of beliefs and fears I had developed surrounding a certain population were just flat out wrong.

That experience encouraged me to intentionally pull in friends who had different faiths, politics and personalities from my own. I later learned that this is what Jesuits practice when in leadership positions and seeking advisers.

Humanising and understanding those so different from ourselves is not just important for our own growth, it also respects the humanity of the people behind those values with which we disagree.

I know that many of the online comments posted on the web would never have been posted if they had to remain attached to the posters’ names, but I sometimes wonder how many of those commenters have truly stopped to think about how their words would affect those they referenced.

As a community, we must learn to agree on one thing: Disagreeing should never involve the denigration of another person, or their values or their work. Never!

Not in an online comment on a website, not in a post on any platform and not by destroying the work of our colleagues.

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