PROLOGUE: THE INTERVIEW
I know very little about the man I'm about to meet except that he is suspected of a horrific crime and that he regards me as the enemy.
I'm sitting in a brightly lit, sparsely furnished room, in an anonymous hotel somewhere in rural England. Thick curtains are drawn across the only window. In front of me is a table; opposite, an empty chair. To my right sits a police officer, who is telling me about the suspect, who, I'm told, is waiting outside. The officer talks me through the excruciating details of the crime. He tells me what we know about it and what we don't, and about the crucial information that I somehow need to extract from the suspect. He tells me that this man is proud, angry and cunning.
I'm trying to concentrate on what the officer is saying, but my brain is whirring away on the encounter to come. This man doesn't want to be here. He doesn't like people like me. How am I going to get someone with whom I am so fundamentally at odds to open up—to tell me anything at all, let alone the truth?
The briefing is finished. I keep my hands flat on the table so that the officer won't see them shaking. 'Are you ready,' says the officer. 'Yes,' I lie. A door opens. The suspect swaggers into the room.
His name is Frank Barnet. He's a delivery driver, a burly man who carries himself with a confidence I certainly don't feel. A minute ago, I was briefed that Barnet had been behaving aggressively while in custody, shouting at the officers. Apparently, he was upset that he had been arrested while dropping off his children at school. Barnet takes the seat opposite and focuses a cold gaze on me. Trying not to betray any evidence of nerves, I start by asking if he can recall what he was doing last Sunday afternoon.
'Why the fuck should I tell you anything?'
Oh man. I am not used to this. Most of my conversations are with people who at least want to talk to me. They usually want it to go well, and so do I. Even if we don't agree on what we're talking about, we agree on how we're going to talk about it. The removal of that unspoken consensus feels alarmingly disorienting. I try again, explaining to Barnet that I just want him to help me understand what he was doing that day.
FB: Why are you talking to me?
IL: We're talking to people who were in the area
FB: I don't give a fuck about people, why are you talking to me, Frank Barnet? Why me?
My stomach lurches. A part of me wants to return his hostility, with interest. What right does he have to be so aggressive? He's the one suspected of a crime, not me. Another part of me wants to avoid any confrontation at all and apologise. I feel confused, uncomfortable, stuck.
* * *
For years now, I've been fascinated by the question of why so many of our public disagreements go so badly. People with differing views seem to find it increasingly hard to argue productively, instead becoming mired in acrimony or stuck in a grinding neutral gear. Then I noticed that the same problems apply to our private lives too. Whether it's parents arguing with their children or workplace quarrels, our inability to disagree well seems to act as a roadblock to progress. Shouldn't we be able to express conflicting views without getting into toxic rows or fruitless stalemates? What's getting in our way?
Unable to answer these questions to my satisfaction, I started to do some research. I spent time reading about the principles of good intellectual debate as established and refined by thinkers over thousands of years, from the ancient philosophers onwards. Principles like assume good faith, get to know your opponent's argument as well as your own, don't argue with straw men. It was wise and enlightening stuff, but something nagged away at me. Like healthy eating or exercise, it seemed much easier to know what you ought to do in disagreement than to do it. I grasped the theories, but the moment I got into a row with my boss or my wife or a stranger on social media, theory went out of the window. I came to think of productive disagreement not as a philosophy so much as a discipline, and a skill.
People are not logic machines. We are egotistical, proud, impulsive, insecure and needy. Rather than being a pure exchange of opinions and evidence, an argument is nearly always entangled with how we feel about each other. That's not necessarily a bad thing: emotions can help us fight our corner or make us sympathetic to another's view. But emotions can work against healthy disagreement too. Primordial instincts kick in, clouding our minds and distorting our behaviour. Unspoken tensions simmer under the surface of the politest disagreements, sometimes boiling over into anger, sometimes leading us into sullen withdrawal, but other times pushing us towards truthfulness and intimacy.