Ian Leslie’s excellent Conflicted is a handbook for our age of rage. We are living through a time when, as Leslie writes, “We do ever more talking and ever less listening.” Everyone, it seems, is angry, offended, or both, all of us permanently ready to go on the offensive if the new trip-wires around our own narrowly-defined political identities are triggered by a misplaced comment.
Leslie accepts that disagreement is fundamental to being human, but whereas in the past our opinions were mostly restricted to the saloon bar, or a letter in a newspaper, social media has democratised — and legitimised — outrage. Causing offence, especially around race and gender, is the most unforgivable of modern crimes. Careers are terminated in the time it takes to re-tweet. Argument, as Rachel Cusk has observed (and quoted by Leslie), has become “an emergency of self-definition”, and right at the intersection between Twitter and identitarianism is that sudden, aggressive, assertion of the self. By proclaiming what we are at maximum volume and intensity we silence others, and define and shame what you are not.
Perhaps it has always been like this. Martin Luther, writing nearly 500 years ago, called the Catholic popes “the very scum of all the most evil people on earth”, which could be a tweet about Trump or Biden, Brexiteer or Remainer. We may aspire to the heaven of Leslie’s dispassionate “creative disagreement”, but too often we are dragged down into the swamp of our predictably messy emotions.
Given this, any attempt to create a millennial’s Debrett’s seems bound to fail. But Leslie insists that we need to figure out a new etiquette of dispute if we are to avoid the online divisions moving into the real world, as they did in Washington DC on 5 January: “Knowing how to disagree in a way that leads to progress and understanding instead of stasis and acrimony can help each and every one of us.” It’s an admirable, if perhaps naive, aim.
Conflicted is Leslie’s map to negotiate this new, socially polarised, warzone, but he tacitly accepts that whatever he writes may not fundamentally change us. He describes Conflicted as “an eminently reasonable book, with its emphasis on hearing each other out, on listening attentively, on seeing each other’s perspective. It’s so . . . polite.” Indeed it is, perhaps because it is written by a polite, liberal, middle-class, English journalist who has a very comfortable existence. The 17,000 people who follow him on Twitter do so because he posts balanced and intelligent tweets about culture and politics, and which are completely free of the acrimony that characterises much of his subject matter here. What can he teach us about conflict when he seems so determined to avoid it?
Conversation is key to constructive disagreement, but it is something we have to work on
Well, it turns out quite a lot. Leslie’s reading around the subject is eclectic — ranging from Socrates to REM, the Beatles to Bertrand Russsell —and always interesting, but he is clearly also a skilled interviewer. He ranges across a huge number of case histories, but also zooms in on the personal histories that have shaped them.
He meets ex-cops and actors who train real cops and agents to interrogate rapists, murderers and terrorists, and he elicits from each of them insights into how they can break through a complex psychological mesh of resistance and allow conversations to begin. Conversation is key to constructive disagreement, but it is something we have to work on: we have to listen, ask genuine questions, and foster curiosity about the other person we are debating with. That takes energy and time, two qualities currently in short supply in public discourse.
The book is divided into three sections: part one is a sort of thesis, in which Leslie proposes “why we need new ways to argue”. Part two resembles a collection of rules, containing antitheses, putting forward possible strategies, and what problems these involve. Part three is a synthesis, including his “toolkit of productive argument”. The strongest sections are the chapters which clearly most fascinate Leslie: the individuals involved, such as David Koresh and the firebrand seventeenth-century puritan Roger Williams, are succinct and skilful analyses of personality, history, psychology and politics, but each adheres closely to the central premise of the book: to get us to see how disagreement should be a sign of a healthy democracy, rather than an attack on oneself and the breakdown of social order.
Even the chapters which slip rather too much into social theory add to the insights of Leslie’s arguments. He explores the differences between “low-context” and “high-context” cultures, of infinite and finite game theory, “stateless” and “stateful” conversations. It would be easy to get bogged down in some of the more abstruse elements of each of these areas, but Leslie is able to interweave them with real-life stories and incidents which show how relevant they are.
Even the chapters which slip rather too much into social theory add to the insights of Leslie’s arguments
Where his tone sometimes jars is when he seems to be drawn into the cod-pyschology that inevitably forms a facile layer around the subject matter. He occasionally sounds like an agony uncle offering advice to his anxious readers. (“Try and pay more attention to non-verbal signals: the pitch of their voice, facial expression and body language. Otherwise you might hear your partner’s words but miss what they’re saying.”)
These moments are mercifully few. At its best Conflicted reminds us of the central importance of meaningful debate, of learning from others in order to think, individually, more creatively and effectively. Violent disagreement is sometimes inevitable, but often self-defeating; but so too is anaemic, conflict-avoidance strategies that demand respect before it is earned. “Disagreement”, Leslie writes, “shouldn’t be a blood sport, but it shouldn’t be a bloodless one either.”
Reaching that sweet spot may be idealistic, but when you look around at the state of the world now, it is clear that, more than ever, we need that irrational belief in progress if we are to bring our divided societies together again. We need to listen, remain curious, and as Socrates showed, be radical enough to keep asking difficult questions.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe