Today’s social and political climate seems to suggest that something has been lost in the art of disagreement. I say art, because there really is something artful to disagreement, at least when it is done properly. In truth, volumes could be written on the art of disagreement. Indeed, many books have already been written on this subject, though they might not explicitly state that their purpose is to train the reader in the art of disagreement.
Plato is most helpful in demonstrating the art of disagreement, though Plato is not as widely read today as he should be. Plato, of course, is not the only one to instruct us in the art of disagreement; the history of Western Civilization can be looked at as a conversation that has been going on for millennia. When we read from some of the great thinkers of the past, we would be wise to note that such thinkers did not write in a vacuum. The great thinkers of the past received guidance and inspiration for their own works by reading from the works of those who went before them. Hence, the works of each thinker are really a contemplation on—and a response to—the works of those who preceded them.
This should not, however, suggest that each response is merely a disagreement with one’s predecessors. Many of the great works of Western Civilization expound upon, or add to, the works of older generations. Nevertheless, there is also much disagreement among the great thinkers of the past. But we should not look at disagreement as something that is inherently bad. Disagreement certainly can be bad, especially when one chooses to disagree just to be disagreeable. But proper disagreement has been essential to the development of many, if not all, of the greatest ideas that lie at the foundation of our civilization. It is through disagreement that one’s views become sharpened and refined, for one becomes aware that not all of her ideas are above criticism. Through disagreement we come to consider certain elements of our own arguments—along with the arguments of others—that we were not aware of before. It helps us to find reasonable ways of strengthening our own arguments and ideas.
But the key thing we need to understand about disagreement is not only that we disagree, but also how to disagree. This particular aspect of disagreement is what I find our society lacks most when it comes to public discussion. For example, many have accused today’s universities of stifling disagreement and debate. What I’m more concerned about is that the disagreements that occur on college campuses are not allowed to proceed in a constructive manner.
When we think, for example, about when political commentators are invited to college campuses to speak — and are subsequently uninvited or protested — we can already acknowledge that some sort of disagreement has occurred, else there would be no protest whatsoever. Certain students and faculty may automatically view the speaker’s ideas as contemptible, and the speaker may think likewise of the ideas of those who protest him. To prohibit the speaker from expressing his ideas would be to stifle constructive disagreement, which is the true problem on college campuses. There are a number of reasons for which this occurs, but I shall address this particular issue in another post. For now, I must explain a bit more about what I mean by disagreement.
When I use the term disagreement, I mean to say that one must have “good reason” to not accept certain premises, conclusions, or arguments from someone with whom she is engaged in a discussion. I will explain what I mean by “good reason” a bit later. I should also point out that I do not use the term disagreement in the same sense that I would use the term discourse. Discourse, as I term it, means to engage in a discussion with one or more people, in which none of the participants of the discussion hold, or argue for, a particular position, but instead engage in a series of questions and suppositions in order to possibly arrive at a position to hold. I do see this as a rather shaky term, but I have nevertheless termed it in the hopes of at least distinguishing discourse from disagreement; hence, I will be able to focus more on disagreement with less ambiguity, or so I hope.
Before touching on how to disagree well, I would do well to explain just why disagreeing well is so important, especially in today’s political and social climate. I do not see that I could convince you of how to disagree well if you do not first know why you should disagree well.
Why ought we to disagree well? When we consider much of today’s methods of disagreement, at least as it occurs on many of our college campuses and in other settings, we must also consider the end purpose of such disagreements. Many students who protest certain speakers do so because they see the ideas being expressed as harmful, or even, in some cases, violent. Hate speech is a term that is thrown around a lot, and many propose that hate speech in any of its forms should simply not be allowed. To prevent said speakers from having a platform from which to express their ideas is, according to many of these protesters, to prevent harm from occurring.
It is at this point that I myself step into dangerous political territory, as what I say here could inspire a lot of people to disagree with me in perhaps a non-constructive way. But I am not without reason for expressing my ideas in this matter. While many students might find the ideas of such speakers to be harmful or offensive, they should still allow such persons to speak and express their ideas in as articulate a manner as they are capable of doing. I am not here going to make a judgement on whether or not students should get offended at being exposed to such ideas, as that is already a very controversial topic in itself. At the same time, however, I perhaps cannot avoid making such a judgement—the fact that I am positing that such speakers be allowed to express their ideas necessarily entails that I not concern myself with potential harms or offenses that may come to those who disagree with such speakers. But I shall say nothing further of this particular matter at this time.
It is, nevertheless, important that we allow those with whom we disagree to argue their positions, and to argue them as well as they are capable of doing, even if we find such positions to be completely detestable. This is because we cannot hope to disagree well with others if we do not fully understand their positions. Disagreement is reduced to a mind-numbing shouting match of whoever can successfully shout down the other. This does nothing to foment intellectual development, nor does it help anyone to strengthen their own position when trying to persuade others to accept said position.
In addition to this, there is a power to disagreeing well, which has a force over the direction and dissemination of ideas that no amount of protesting can ever hold. This is because in the art of disagreeing well, if we have good reason for disagreeing with someone, we can show all the reasons for which we disagree with them. This allows us to show the flaws in an interlocutor’s position. And if we are articulate in showing the weaknesses of another’s position, then we will have more power to persuade others that they should not accept that position. You will then be able to show others why they should have good reason not to accept such a position. If you really find someone’s ideas to be harmful, you should be able to show wherein such ideas are harmful or flawed. This is why we should allow, especially on college campuses, for good disagreement to run its course.
Now, some might still disagree with me on the point of allowing certain speakers to express their positions. They might argue that doing so could still cause irrevocable harm to certain people. There is not much I can do to alleviate this concern. Whether or not it is a legitimate concern is a matter that I shall not touch on in this essay.
At any rate, these are a few points about the importance of disagreeing well. In the next part of this series, I will elaborate some points on how to disagree well.