Agreeing to disagree

I’m just back from a panel discussion on Gandhi and democratic disagreement that left me with a lot of questions and some thoughts on what it might mean for the classroom. The panelists were heatedly defending Gandhi’s commitment to free speech and the right to dissent or equally heatedly countering this and suggesting instead that there were many instances where the Mahatma imposed his ideas and disregarded other viewpoints. The panel ended with participants agreeing that there were different ways of looking at Gandhi’s legacy and that we needed to continue to engage with his writing and his life. This in some ways modelled the very notion of democratic disagreement – that even when consensus or agreement cannot be reached, it is important to listen and consider a variety of viewpoints, and finally respect the will of the majority.

Democracy after all is an unfinished project not just in India but even in the so-called “mature democracies” of the world. True participatory governance is far from a reality except perhaps (arguably) in some small Nordic countries, but there’s nothing wrong in hoping for and working towards that ideal.

While debates are organized as part of extracurricular or inter-school competitive events, they are usually performative, with students rehearsing points around an issue that is most often quite distant from their daily lives. What we need is the understanding of civil dialogue that engages with difference that might come up in our everyday life – how do we (as the saying goes) agree to disagree while actually listening to and trying to understand the other points of view? And how do we build a culture that is the essence of democracy – that even when we do not agree, it is the will of the majority that we will cooperate with?

What if the classroom became a space where disagreement could be voiced in a polite and civil manner, contrary ideas explained and clarified, and controversial topics argued from many different perspectives (not just “for” or “against”), and also allowing for the possibility that some people may not have an opinion or find themselves somewhere in the middle? Our real-life examples of democratic debate are not exactly emulation-worthy, to put it mildly. Our politicians go hammer and tongs at the opposite side on the floor of the Parliament and our primetime media news programming are mostly shouting matches. If children get to experience an environment that values a diversity of opinions, one that allows for different voices to be articulated and heard, and one where disagreement can respectfully sit alongside agreement, it would go a long way in rescuing public discourse from the mudslinging media contest it has become.

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