In the months since Bo Seo moved from South Korea to Australia at the age of eight, learning to agree with those around him wasn’t just an inclination – it has become a survival mechanism.
He spoke no English, and a pleasant disposition resembled the easy option, although it did not easily suit the budding debater inside.
“The hardest conversations to resolve were the disagreements – when people tend to talk to each other, passions start racing, and the rhythms of speech tend to break down,” he said.
“It made me decide to be really really nice, smile and keep most of my thoughts to myself.
“What pulled me out of this was my Grade 5 teacher telling me that in debate, when one person talks, no one else does – and to someone to whom we had spoken and that had been interrupted and interrupted, it sounded like an irresistible promise.”
Through the debate, Mr. Seo discovered “a community that allowed me to be heard”.
He didn’t just find his voice, but used it to reach the highest rhetorical heights and was part of the Harvard team that won the World College Debating Championship in 2016.
His prowess as a school debater has taken him across Australia, and he recently returned to Adelaide for a discussion of his book Good Arguments at UniSA’s Hawke Centre.
Disagreement doesn’t have to be unpleasant
The word “debater” can conjure up incongruous associations – on the one hand there’s the confident student politician, with rounded vowels and haughty manners, dreaming of the parliamentary bench.
But this portrait is counterbalanced by another.
“If you sort of think of the kids debating in school, you might remember there were eccentrics in there,” Mr Seo recently told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Deb Tribe.
“They learn to read a play, often for the sake of self-preservation.
Good Arguments explores the consequences of this epiphany.
One of his ideas is that the art of disagreeing should not in itself be distasteful – debating and small argument are not different expressions of the same impulse, but deeply disagreeing.
The point is illustrated by the Monty Python sketch in which a character pays for an argument.
After opening exchanges of “yes I did” and “no you didn’t”, he becomes exasperated.
“An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a precise proposition,” he told his interlocutor.
“Contradiction is just the automatic contradiction of whatever the other person says.”
The distinction is endorsed by Seo.
“Coming to an agreement on what kind of conversation we want to have, and being very deliberate about it, can be helpful,” he said.
“Are we going to interrupt each other or not, are we going to give each other equal time to talk?
This lesson isn’t just applicable in the public arena, Mr. Seo was quick to add — it can also help relationships.
“Our personal disagreements, certainly from experience, tend to be the most painful,” he said.
“We decided to share our lives together and suddenly there’s so much we know about each other, so many points of contact that we accumulate every day, each of which could be dragged into the discussion – so a disagreement on dirty dishes also becomes [about] your mother-in-law.
“Again, being deliberate, setting boundaries on what the conversation is about and what it’s not about, can help.”
Combine judgment and wisdom
Such an approach can have its limits, Seo acknowledged, because being rational involves recognizing that humans can sometimes stubbornly resist reason.
Words won’t solve all our problems – there’s no perfect phrase for every scenario.
As the satirist Jonathan Swift wrote three centuries ago, reasoning will not “correct a bad opinion” if that opinion has not been acquired by reason.
“One type of bully I write about is the ‘wrangler’ – the person who is a little critical of every idea you come up with,” Mr Seo said.
“If you can’t agree on what kind of conversation you’re going to have, it might not be worth it.”
Despite this downside, Mr. Seo retains his “faith in what disagreement can do.”
He is currently a student at Harvard Law School and has an interest in human rights – an often highly contested area.
“The argument is what we have to do every day – we have to do it in the workplace, we have to do it at school, we have to do it in our lives as citizens,” he said. he declares.
“The art of argumentation begins with acknowledging disagreement as a job – it’s a kind of craft you can get better at.