Disagreement is weird.
There’s a positivistic view of the world — dominant in popular discourse — that everything should come down to evidence and reason. Evidence and reason are mixed together in the cauldron of the mind to produce Facts. You either believe in Facts or — it is asserted — you’re a creepy post-modernist who doesn’t live in the Real World.
We have a whole host of slogans about Facts. You’re not entitled to your own, for example. And we’ve popularised scientists as being the Prophets of Facts. If a scientist says it’s a Fact, then it’s a Fact. But sometimes marginalised scientists on the fringes of academia are being persecuted (like Galileo) and so those scientists are the True Prophets of Facts and the mainstream scientists are False Prophets of Facts.
In the ideal world of the Enlightenment, disagreements simply should not exist. Differences of opinion would mean that somebody is factually incorrect. Two ordinary people, possessed of all the Facts, will agree. If they disagree, then somebody is mistaken, lying, or trolling.
It’s a completely bonkers view of the world. First, it tries to normalise a particular view of the world without giving us much reason for doing so. The ‘correct’ view is the ‘objective’, ‘mind-independent’, ‘value-neutral’ one, but then it’s assumed that the scientists (or, at least, the empiricists) are custodians of that view. Second, it struggles to account for the world of opinion.
We discovered that the way we frame our ideas in language dictated the way we perceived the world around us. The scientist and empiricist — being as human as the rest of us — had to filter their experiences of the outside world through language. This insight was a key piece of information missing to the enterprise of the Enlightenment, resulting in some fairly crazy (read ‘disturbingly racist’) policies.
So where we have a long history of worshiping scientists as the priests of a new Age of Reason, we have very little modern history have how to deal with differences of opinion. Philosophers rarely — if ever — write in dialogue form these days. Writers produce polemics: one-sided railings against invisible adversaries who, it is imagined, will write their own polemics in response. And the public at large learns to see public debate as a battle between people armed with ten megaphones but no ears.
We are even at the point where it’s considered rude to disagree. If I wish to disagree with your viewpoint, I have to make you feel comfortable and respected. I am forbidden to make you feel like you’re not an omniscient sage. If I dare to disrupt your view of the world, I am a troll.
Never discuss politics or religion at the table. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. We shall just have to agree to disagree.
Conversely, disagreement and dispute is turned into a form of entertainment for pseudo-intellectuals, but it’s confined to safe spaces like the television, radio, and stage. Importantly, this form of performative outrage doesn’t teach us how to disagree with each other. The people who disagree never really engage with each other — they are there to win points with the audience, to give a sense of ‘balance’ by having two equally imbalanced people shout in opposite directions. You don’t get two people who disagree to explore an issue together with an audience. Pell v Dawkins! Marr v Henderson! Latham v Whoever is sitting next to Latham!
See also Q&A where the panellists are discouraged from engaging with each other, but instead are expected to direct their comments through the audience member who asked the question.
We see the outcome of this on social media. Disagreement isn’t tolerated. You can’t be friends with people who hold views that disagree with your own. Your social media goal is to see nothing but messages from people who agree with you. You either block and mute people who disagree with you, or you get out your flamewarrior armaments.
The Platonic Ideal of Disagreement is where two people transcend the passive aggressive, ‘Agree to Disagree’ stance and instead reach the Nirvana of ‘I recognise and understand what you are saying and I see how it is a rational alternative to my own view’.
It also allows us to examine and unpack the difference between being conservative and being (LNP-biased) partisan, between being progressive and being (Greens-biased) partisan, and between being a social democrat and being (ALP-biased) partisan. There’s got to be more to these terms than just their association with a political party.
More than that, it opens up the space for disagreement among people who fundamentally agree on the big picture, but disagree at the level of the details. I was recently called a ‘c–t’ by a person who could not entertain the possibility that I’d disapprove of Nauru and Manus Island immigration detention facilities while simultaneously holding the view that they’re not gulags. When I wrote a piece about the intuitions that internet activists use to argue about privacy, I was abused by people (all of them Greens voters) who actually agreed with the majority of what I was saying (even when it included a whopping big paragraph explicitly stating that I wasn’t arguing what they thought I was arguing). There was a disbelief that we could affirm the same principles but have radically different views about how they should be realised.
No wonder we see the world as increasingly polarised and tribalistic. You’re either entirely with us angels, or you’re secretly working against us with the demons. The only shades of grey are in soft core pr0n.
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