Discourse, both public and private, is getting worse not better. Where a difference of opinion should be a creative force, now polarisation is the norm. Ian Leslie, as readers of this magazine will know, has a way of bringing fresh perspectives and telling anecdotes to obdurate subjects. Here he talks to everyone from hostage negotiators to divorce lawyers to show how conflict has driven successful companies and technological advances, and to offer ways to harness it in daily life.
I’m unconvinced that there is much hope for society. But, on the personal level, those of us who are able to argue well have much to gain from this increasingly rare skill. If you want to argue better, Leslie’s manual will be invaluable. As Leslie shows with examples from science, technology and the arts, productive disagreement spurs on creativity and discovery and new thinking: Orville and Wilbur Wright argued almost constantly, so did the Rolling Stones, so did Watson and Crick (the rival team working on DNA, Wilkins and Franklin, kept a cool distance from each other after Wilkins mistook Franklin for a lab assistant on their first meeting).
Leslie is interested in emotion as much as intelligence, and how it can obstruct or assist the quest for truth. Despite its risks, and the pain and outrage it can cause when it leads to outright hostility, he is a believer in strong argument. “Open, passionate disagreement blows away the cobwebs that gather over even the most enduring relationships . . . It flushes out crucial information and insights that will otherwise lie inaccessible or dormant inside our brains. It fulfils the creative potential of diversity,” he writes.