It is at this point that I would like to emphasize the relationship between disagreeing well and intellectual cultivation. Indeed, disagreements throughout history have been essential to the development of some of the most important and consequential ideas to all of civilization. It is through disagreement that we learn to dissect and fully understand such ideas, which gives us more power to persuade others to accept or reject them, and to make meaningful additions to them ourselves. Proper disagreement can also help us to sharpen our own views, as well as the views of others.
It generally goes without saying that most people fancy themselves to be more intelligent than they actually are. But this is because our own minds are the only minds to which we have direct access, and so we don’t have much to compare own thoughts and experiences against. That anyone should hold a particular position on any issue is to assume that she has grasped some point of truth. Nobody would by default think that the ideas for which he argues are false. Surely, he who pickets on behalf of some social cause will not privately think to himself, “In truth, I think the whole purpose of this cause is bunk.”
Because we live in a rather isolated world of our own thoughts, it is hard for us to instinctively believe that the positions we hold are false. We automatically like the things we think. I myself am probably guilty of thinking that the things I have heretofore written are rather insightful and intelligent. But engaging in proper disagreement with others can fight against this condition. Others disagreeing with us can expose the weaknesses of our own ideas. It can expose us to good ideas that we otherwise would not accept. It can help us to strengthen our own positions on certain issues, and with that, make us more persuasive. Disagreeing well, at its core, can help us to gain a greater grasp on truths about the world; wherefore, it is no small matter.
Fundamentally, disagreeing well is a method for handling ideas. And ideas are no small thing to handle. Why else would so many college students vehemently protest against speakers with whom they disagree? To echo Richard Weaver, ideas really do have consequences. Big ones. Wherefore, we should be able to handle them well. Firearms must be handled safely in a proper manner, for the misuse thereof can put oneself and others in peril. Lifting weights at the gym must be done with proper form, so as to mitigate the possibility of injury and maximize the benefits of such exercises. Skiing cannot be done gracefully (and enjoyably) unless it be done with the proper form. And in like manner, ideas cannot be fully grasped unless they be handled properly. Mishandling them can have dire consequences.
Indeed, entire nations—even entire civilizations—have been both made and unmade through ideas. It would be wrong, for example, to assume that World War II started with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. The Great War started not with an invasion, but with an idea. The Nazi regime that invaded Poland was conceived on the basis of certain ideas, albeit wholly wicked ones. The Cold War, during which our entire civilization sat on the cusp of utter annihilation, was not a war that started with the amassing of terrifying destructive power; it was a war of ideas — the East against the West, which ideas had their respective inceptions centuries before.
We must recognize that ideas do not come from nowhere. None of the great thinkers of the past thought in a vacuum. Their ideas were informed and shaped by the ideas of others. The Great Ideas, the ones that have been most consequential to the shaping of our world as we know it, were ideas that took centuries to develop. The writing of the words “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was the culmination of thousands of years’ work from thinkers across the world.
But while we can say that the Great Ideas have taken a very long time to develop, so too do some of the truly bad ideas of history, or the ones that have done the most harm to our civilization. By that same token, we must recognize that the truly bad ideas cannot be undone very quickly. Just as much as they take centuries—and in some cases millennia—to develop, they may also take just as much time to be undone, for good or for ill.
We live in a world of ideas. Some are in the process of being developed, and some are already fully formed. Some truly good ideas need to be developed further, while some truly terrible ideas have already come to full form. Can we hope to facilitate the development of good ideas and the hindering of bad ideas without proper disagreement?
The intellectual disease of our time is, in part, that we think disagreement is an inherently bad thing. If there is anything that I hope you will have taken away from my exposition here, it is that disagreement is not an inherently bad thing. On the contrary, it is an essential thing to the preservation and cultivation of our civilization. Indeed, our distaste for disagreement is perhaps largely responsible for our time’s toxic political discourse, which, I might add, seems to be becoming increasingly toxic. I have written this series in the hopes that I might get at a possible solution to our present political turmoils.