How do you politely disagree with people?
How do you show you don’t have the same views as someone else, even critique their views, without seeming rude or angry?
Too many people (myself included) aren’t sure how to do this.
Fortunately, over a hundred years ago author G.K. Chesterton helped answer that question.
Chesterton’s known for a lot of things (he wrote everything from mysteries to lay theology and influenced thinkers like C.S. Lewis), one them being the fact he held very strong views and befriended people with very different views.
Heretics, a book Chesterton wrote in 1905, epitomizes this friendly disagreement attitude.
In this book, Chesterton talks about people he describes as “heretics” (meaning, people who hold different views than him), and critiques their ideas but never seems like their enemy.
Here are 4 things Chesterton did well in Heretics that help us understand friendly disagreement:
1. He Never Demonized People
When you disagree with someone, it’s often hard to talk about things they genuinely get right. It can feel like admitting their strengths threatens your belief that they’ve gotten something else.
However, Chesterton showed that it really doesn’t.
He begins each chapter of Heretics by explaining someone’s position and criticizes it, but he always notes their strengths before explaining where they went wrong.
In the introduction, he mentions his friend George Bernard Shaw:
“[In this book] I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and the most honest men alive,” Chesterton writes. “I am concerned with him as a heretic – that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”
Chesterton understood that everyone has a mixed pile of correct and incorrect assumptions, and the honest thing to do is recognize that.
2. He Wanted People to Improve
It’s tempting to not only demonize but also humiliate people when you criticize their views.
Christopher Hitchens’ comment to Larry Alex Taunton about his three rules of debate (Know the other man’s position; Know why he holds it; Decide whether to destroy the man or the argument) comes to mind.
Chesterton not only noted people strengths, he showed he wanted them to change for their own good.
In “Mr. H.G. Wells and the Giants,” he talks about H.G. Wells’ and his belief in Nietzche’s Superman idea. After discussing why believing strong people are heartless is such a bad idea, Chesterton makes this comment:
“I have dwelt on this matter of Mr. Wells and the giants, not because it is especially prominent in his mind — I know that the Superman does not bulk so large in his cosmos as in that of Mr. Bernard Shaw. I have dwelt on it for the opposite reason; because this heresy of immoral hero-worship has taken, I think, a slighter hold of him, and may perhaps still be prevented from perverting one of the best thinkers of the day.”
He believed Wells was a great thinker and hoped that he would eventually see the truth.
3. He Was Certain of Ultimate Victory
Chesterton didn’t know if his arguments for Christianity would necessarily win everyone over. But he knew that Christianity would survive no matter what.
In “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson,” Chesterton talks about why Dickinson’s idea to bring back paganism is wrong and ends by saying that even if people go back to paganism they’ll just discover the truth again: paganism doesn’t work.
“If we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion,” Chesterton explains, “we shall end where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity [because Paganism isn’t enough].”
Because he had eternal hope, Chesterton didn’t have to feel like a one-man island.
In The Last Christian On Earth, Os Guinness describes this confidence as a defining trait of “The Third Fool,” someone who seems foolish but manages to turn the tables and prove their point in surprising ways.
4. He Used Comedy
Chesterton had a very funny witty writing style and loved using jokes or wry statements in his essays.
He opens his essay “Celts and Celtophiles” by saying:
“Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long word to cover the errors of the rich.”
Near the start of his essay, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” he comments:
“Everyone would admit that [families] have been the main cell and central unit of almost all societies… except, indeed, such societies as that of Lacedaemon, which went in for ‘efficiency,’ and has therefore perished.”
This comedic style may seem superficial, but it actually helps Chesterton’s arguments.
People respond positively to humor, so even if you disagree with Chesterton’s arguments it’s hard to fully discard them when you read them.
Much like C.S. Lewis’ books, Chesterton’s comedic touch makes his books entertaining as well as enlightening, and therefore has a much wider appeal.