Philosophy Proper ReformedScholastic

Disagreeing With “Agree to Disagree”

From the 1650’s on, honest serious-minded people from both sides of the barricades tried to hammer out mutually acceptable modes of discussion that would enable them to circumvent, if not overcome, their earlier…differences.

—Stephen Toulmin

In Cosmopolis, Stephen Toulmin discusses the problem of any pluralistic society: how do people with different views (philosophically and theologically) get along, as it were, within a singular society? This problem itself raises other questions: can there even be a properly singular society if that society is pluralistic (i.e., what is the principle of unity within any given society that makes it one?) and so on? This problem is a significant one, the answer to which we necessarily embody in our daily lives by how we treat such disagreements and differences—philosophical, theological, social, political, etc.—whether consciously or unconsciously. In our own times there is an answer to this problem. What I am referring to is the popular notion of agreeing-to-disagree. It is a theoretical idea of how differing parties ought to relate to one another, a practical imperative said to those who do not wish to do so, and, now, a social norm which is expected of individuals in a practically universal manner. But I have found this answer intellectually and existentially unsatisfying and even destructive.   For these reasons, I propose a project of defiance: I am disagreeing to agree to disagree and I propose that you do too.

I am defiant for several reasons: First, in agreeing-to-disagree one is being deceived into thinking that such matters upon which there is theoretical disagreement are irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth. Despite what is said, there are ideas which rule and govern our society: whichever ideas has more power in our society will, practically, reduce the contrary ones to irrelevance. This is evident from the existence of this post: the idea that those things about which humans disagree is, practically, irrelevant has overcome the idea that those things are relevant; therefore, the idea of agreeing-to-disagree exists with such profound cultural significance. Do not be naïve: even when two people agree-to-disagree, one idea ends up overcoming the other. These two ideas about which we are almost required to agree-to-disagree do not live side-by-side as equals. On the contrary, one will dominate the other. In fact, one could argue that the idea of agreeing-to-disagree is itself a means to attain such dominance. After all, when two people agree-to-disagree do they mutually cease to live by those opinions? Of course not! So, why this nonsense? If this agreeing-to-disagree doesn’t actually address the differences but rather falls into a type of complacency with the assumption of an impasse, then there is only one path left for these ideas or opinions to compete on: that of the field of power and assertion. This bypasses the rational conversation upon which ideas and opinions should be measured and in place of which evaluates them by which ideas are more powerful. But this misses the entire point: the question about opinions should not be whether which is more powerful, but which is true. In agreeing-to-disagree, one inevitably forces their opinions to be measured by their relative power rather than their truthfulness.

Second, in agreeing-to-disagree we devalue each other’s respective differences: we end up saying, whether we wish to or not, that they don’t really matter and that only those who are called “intellectuals” (that is, a term used for an obtuse, esoteric, and impractical individual) really try to make it matter. But this does nothing towards actually solving the problem of difference in a pluralistic society. In any attempt to reconcile differences, we cannot be merely dismissive or consider them irrelevant. If we overcome differences by ignoring or dismissing them, what have we actually accomplished? Nothing. Have we even overcome anything? No, what we have done is taken on ignorance which we mistake for bliss and refuse to look up upon the dark clouds overhead even as it begins to rain. In this, we destroy any reason to care for whether the good life consists in happiness or pleasure—or any other proposed alternative; the very idea of the good life (as opposed to a good life) becomes first irrelevant and then unintelligible. How does this affect a society which, for the vast majority, agrees-to-disagree? It creates a general attitude of apathy: for if all differences are solved, practically, by this disposition, what reason is there to concern ourselves with any conception of the good life? On the view implicit in the practice of agreeing-to-disagree, it makes no difference whether the good life consists in happiness, as Aristotle defines it, or pleasure, as Bentham defines it. The irony is that what is done in attempt to value the differences (and hold them in tension) has ended up dismissing them for all practical purposes: it is the sophist, and not the genuine believer, who is at home here. For when a society becomes accustomed to agreeing-to-disagree, it then ceases to be able to disagree with agreeing-to-disagree: it has ceased to be an option to solve differences and has become the nearly universal opinion. It did not actually solve differences but presented something else for all to agree on, thereby overshadowing the differences originally in view.

Is disagreeing with agreeing-to-disagree really a way forward? No, because I am not actually proposing a way to deal with the disagreements but this is a step ahead of my point here. All I am trying to argue here is this: disagreeing with the disposition commonly described as agreeing-to-disagree is the precondition for even beginning to find a way to deal with the problem of difference. This rests on my previous arguments since if we agree-to-disagree, then we have written off our respective opinions as things which are not that important. To be defiant against this is merely to say that differences matter and cannot be merely overlooked for emotional comfort. This is what I am proposing. If you possess an opinion, then it is your opinion; the question, then, should not be whether or not you have to existentially hold on to it or not but rather whether it is a true or false opinion, as Plato speaks of in his dialogue Meno. If we, as human beings in a singular society, wish to resolve our differences of opinion, we must believe and continue to believe that these opinions matter: they are not mere matters of indifference.

– Michael Hall

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Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 98.

1 comment on “Disagreeing With “Agree to Disagree”

  1. David Hall

    Well stated Michael, and very relevant. There is a history lesson on this point. When the original colonies were stitching together the bond that became the USA, there were certain matters where they merely agreed to disagree, ignoring the differences rather than dealing with them. One of those being that this new nation stood by the concept of inalienable rights that all men are created equal, endowed by our Creator…..while at the same time enduing slavery within than new nation. This agreeing to disagree led to a difference that festered for nearly a hundred years, leading to a terrible civil war. Dealing with differences is important, agreeing to disagree ignores those differences. Amen. Thanks for the article, keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

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