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COMMENTARY

Embracing, shaping a new world order amid disagreement

WORLD leaders from business, government and civil society come together in Davos this week against the context of a new world order moving from common values to "multi-conceptual and competing narratives". There is an undercurrent of concern around whether we face a disconnected world incapable of macro-level cooperation as nations, industries and societies struggle with conflicting values.

But we shouldn't fear multi-conceptual narratives. We should fear losing the ability to have open discourse and disagreement around them.

A HISTORY OF DISAGREEMENT

Throughout history, our biggest steps forward as a human race have been framed by a polarisation of views driving creativity, innovation and human advancement. We have harnessed disagreement and controversy to drive transformation, evolving by challenging the status quo, and each other.

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The great Greek scholars were rarely united in opinion. Socrates disagreed with Homer. Aristotle rejected much of Plato's philosophy. But through their disagreements came some of the greatest thinking of our times.

Seventeenth-century Paris saw the rise of salons organised and attended by French women which provided a platform for them to hone their skills of debate and find a voice against the strictures they faced in a male-dominated society. In an era of absolutism, these salons allowed them to colour outside the lines, championing feminism and spearheading the rise of the Enlightenment.

In science, much discovery has been grounded in the exploration of conflicting theories, often over years of experimentation. Take the invention of the first battery in 1800. This came from the opposing views of Italian physicists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. Galvani presented a theory of animal electricity, in which he argued the discovery of a new form of electricity found in living tissue following a study of twitching in frogs' legs. Volta's refute of his friend's theory eventually led to his discovery of the Voltaic pile, the first source of a continuous electrochemical current and forerunner to the modern-day battery.

The now widely celebrated Renaissance, Modernism and Cubism movements all drew much resistance, but they also - like so many other movements - challenged and drove us to new worlds of thought and living.

DISPUTE IN A DIGITAL AGE

Great ideas come from great, intelligent dispute - an art form which must not be lost.

In many developed countries, we are entering a cotton wool era where the protection of feelings rules and words of opposition are taken to mean offence, at times even deemed criminal. Free speech has been translated to be seen as a ticket to shut down those with opposing views, rather than to listen and engage in intellectual debate with them.

In today's digital age, we risk losing the art of individual thought, identifying ourselves within pacts where we seek affirmation of our beliefs, rather than question them. We decide what we want to think, who we pray to, how we vote, and we cut off - or unfollow - anyone who opposes our doctrine. We live in the echo chamber of social media and take "facts" from polarised newsrooms corresponding to our ideological affinities. When US President Donald Trump was elected, 40 per cent of his voters named Fox News as their main source of election news.

21ST CENTURY DISCOURSE

From the rise of nationalistic tendencies resulting in the US government shutdown and the Brexit vote to rising global temperatures, rapid advancements in gene splicing and the rise of machine learning, today's world events demand discussion. Topics which elicit the most polarised views will be the same ones that drive the greatest leaps forward now and into the next century.

Does artificial intelligence hold the promise of improved security, sustainable growth, poverty alleviation and better environmental infrastructures? Or does it also mean that our thoughts, actions, behaviours and plans are constantly under surveillance? Have we fought for the freedom of choice and speech, only to give it up? Are we sacrificing human intelligence? The discussion on climate change is rife. Some still argue its legitimacy. Some deny the relative impact of human activity on our planet. Many now debate how to address it and shape sustainable environmental development, reinvent the way we produce and consume energy and tackle plastic-hungry consumerism.

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents us with advanced technologies of unprecedented scale which, if correctly harnessed, will catalyse innovations of a speed and scope unparalleled in human history.

But how we shape the future depends on our ability to embrace forums - such as the World Economic Forum - where all views are genuinely welcomed at the table, where we address the moral implications of our inventions, define ethical boundaries and apply the laws that govern our behaviour.

If we can hold on to the ways of the ancient Greek philosophers and impart the rules of discourse and disagreement to our future generations, empowering individual voices and embracing intelligent disagreement, then the future is bright.

At this key inflection point, we must harness multi-conceptual views to safeguard positive social, economic and political evolution.

  • The writer is founder of members club 1880 in Singapore, where membership requires an appetite for debate and discussion