Holding tension

When last did you disagree with someone? Not too long ago, I’ll warrant (especially if you spend any time online).


Disagreeing with someone in person usually plays out very differently to disagreeing with someone online. For one, you have a whole host of non-verbal cues which modify the message. For another, it is a lot harder to just nope out of a face-to-face conversation — there is no convenient Close Tab option, and try as you might, alt-F4 isn’t going to change the pain in in your friend’s face at what you just said.


There are also a number of things that remain the same, no matter the medium. Blindspots, echo chambers and other cognitive biases are topics I will dig into in more depth at a later stage, and learning how not to take offence (the rule of 99) is a marvellous tool to minimise stress, especially in a loaded conversation. But possibly the hardest thing to do with perspectives you disagree with is:

Learning how to hold opposing perspectives in tension
without fully embracing or discarding them.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a very contrary opinion on how the government is handling the lockdown. His perspective was an essential one to hear, because it is particularly uncomfortable for those of us with the luxury of food security and social distancing as an option. But it also flies in the face of much conventional wisdom regarding the lockdown.

  • Yes, the initial lockdown was necessary.
  • But every day it is extended puts the most vulnerable of our country at a much greater risk of starvation and even deeper generational destitution
  • The longer we keep the lockdown, the worse it will get for the poorest in the country, no matter how much money the government throws at the problem (because how much of it will be misused or looted anyway?)

His post highlighted something that is true more often than we would like to admit: there are rarely easy answers in life. Which is an excellent opportunity to practice the skill of holding multiple perspectives in tension.


Here are a few facts. In any context:

  • Very rarely, one perspective is clearly right and the others clearly wrong (these are also frequently morally reprehensible).
  • Sometimes, a perspective seems right, but only when examined from a certain perspective. In another light, it is a poor option.
  • Most of the time, there is right and wrong, good and bad in every perspective.
  • And always, multiple perspectives are necessary and valuable for a full view.


When you discard an opinion because it disagrees with your own position, you also discard all the good and valuable content that comes with that opinion. And beyond that,

Holding multiple perspectives in tension necessarily produces empathy and compassion, or at the very least, understanding.
And we could all do with more of that at this time.


Even if a perspective is straight up wrong, doing the work to understand where the person holding that position is coming from will help you develop empathy for people and ideas contrary to your own, which is a rewarding life practice.


I am not for a minute suggesting that you should give harmful rhetoric or ideas space to grow — at every opportunity, stand against prejudice, racism, abuse and so on. But even in those cases, holding tension can still produce positive fruit. For example, I get triggered super quickly by conspiracy theorists that actively undermine public health (such as the idea that 5G causes COVID-19. ~Takes a deep breath.~)


Obviously, I am not going to allow such tripe on my Facebook wall, nor will I easily let it go unchallenged. BUT, by holding it in tension I gain the following:

  • An appreciation of the fearful environment such theories thrive in, which is often a reflection of the individual’s personal headspace. This allows me to have empathy with them, because even though I deal with my fears differently, I still have them.
  • An appreciation of the value of critical thinking (and deep gratitude for the people in my who taught me to think critically and call me out when I am not doing so).
  • An opportunity to deepen my technical understanding of COVID-19, 5G and other related fields.


This isn’t easy work, especially when confronted with ideas that challenge you to the core. But I believe it is an incredibly valuable tool, especially in these times.

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