Disagreeing to Disagree

by Chris Berger

[I am one of] those who are refuted with pleasure if I say something not true, and who refute with pleasure if someone else should say something not true – and indeed not with less pleasure to be refuted than to refute. For I consider it a greater good, to the extent that it is a greater good to be released oneself from the greatest evil than to release another. For I think that nothing is so great an evil for a human being as false opinion about the highest things. – Plato’s Socrates, Gorgias, 458a-b

What does it mean to be free to speak one’s mind? For that matter, what does it mean to be free to form and to hold one’s own opinion in the first place? Indeed, such rights are key components of the foundation upon which Western democracies and, first and foremost, the Western university, are built. Within the university students pursue – perhaps naively – truth. With such high stakes, we may be more accurate if we speak not just of a freedom to speak but a responsibility to articulate our opinions clearly and openly. But when we speak solely of freedom of opinion and the freedom to express said opinion, we miss something fundamental to the original notion of such freedoms: the freedom, nay the responsibility to make sense. This consideration ought to be at the forefront.

To make sense when we speak our minds in conversation with others is to articulate our (verified) reasons for thinking and speaking as we do. To hold an opinion is to have formed an opinion; to have formed an opinion is, in the best case, to have applied logic and reasoning to whatever evidence one may have to work with. The goal is to ensure that the thought and argumentation through which we form opinions is sound. I like to say that while freedom of opinion and speech are the stuff out of which education is made, it is sound opinions and coherent speech that are the aim of the educated mind.

If we cannot argue well for our opinions (and I do emphasize “well”), we possess nothing but empty words and baseless thoughts. Do we have a right to these words and thoughts? Perhaps in the sense that nothing and no one can forcibly compel us either to abandon or to make anything more of them; but this is a “right” in only such an attenuated sense that to speak of it as such dilutes the term and robs it of its power.

As a student, I became accustomed to hearing my peers tell me “That’s a subjective matter,” or, my personal favourite, “Let’s agree to disagree” (this is not even to mention the increasingly ubiquitous, “That offends me!”) Not coincidentally, I suspect, both statements are prompted by a challenge to the speaker’s opinion. If the debate was especially vigorous or on a subject of sufficient sensitivity, one could expect to be met with a febrile chorus of “I’m entitled to my own opinion!” if one pressed the matter. None of this will sound unfamiliar to Canadian university students, likely because it has become a reflexive response to the prospect of unwanted entanglement in difficult questions.

It is not to be entirely unexpected that to challenge someone’s opinion will elicit such responses. To have one’s beliefs questioned is an affront to one’s natural love of one’s own: we take it as a direct challenge when anything we regard as our own, not only our confidence in our opinions, is threatened or taken from us. It is especially painful to have our most deeply rooted convictions called into question because it forces us to consider the possibility that our own beliefs may false or worthless.

When we engage in debate, we exchange reasons that (hopefully) explain why one alternative is superior to or truer than another. It is this exchange of reasons that allows us to follow arguments through to their conclusions; we are literally active in the thought process, not merely passive observers. Hence, when we are engaged in debate with someone who disagrees with us and that person articulates reasons that we cannot refute, we implicitly agree with that person’s conclusions. Disagreement entails reasons, thus if we claim to “disagree” but cannot supply reasons, we do not really disagree with what our interlocutor has said: we merely dislike it.

The truth has no responsibility to be palatable. But this is precisely what we presume when, having been confronted with reasons that our opinion is wrong, we feebly respond that that is simply the other person’s opinion or that we ought to agree to disagree (or we shout them down with hyperbole, ad hominem, self-victimization, and melodramatic grandstanding with accusations of microaggressions or political correctness – but that’s a topic for another day). These are cop-outs. Worse, they are cop-outs that shut down conversation or the exchange of ideas, the very fabric of learning itself, simply out of a desire to avoid argument, conflict, or personal embarrassment. Why, then, is this timid avoidance of debate and controversy so pervasive amongst students, teachers, and public office holders alike? Why do we feel so entitled to hold any opinion that pops into our heads, with so little regard for our reasons?

This attitude of seemingly casual indifference, which is actually fear of judgment, is attributable to an easy-going relativism that mistakes the refusal to question differing opinions for tolerance and openness. The received wisdom of the modern Canadian university student has it that open-mindedness requires that all opinions and all ways of life be equally defensible; no one way or interpretation is objectively better than any other. (Of course this theoretical hypothesis is not actually practicable; to so practice it entails affirming opinions that do not respect other opinions, which is of course unacceptable for us. The ironic practical manifestation of this relativism is thus a particularly nasty and ochlagogical form of absolutism.)

A relativist would claim that all we have are subjective “values” that should not and cannot be judged. “Openness” so understood closes us to the possibility of learning, since learning entails replacing faulty opinions with slightly less faulty ones. Clearly, if we are going to presume that no opinion is better than any other, then learning as the improvement and refinement of opinion cannot mean anything. As it concerns the activity of conversation, the exchange of ideas is then pointless if we cannot (or rather choose not to) discriminate between better and worse opinions according to the quality of the reasons and arguments behind them. Without the possibility of such discrimination, we speak only to hear ourselves talk.

Students ought to take their education outside the classroom and engage their peers in a lively exchange of ideas. But such exchanges can all be for naught unless we resist the dictum of agreeing to disagree. Never presume a “right” or an “entitlement” to hold an opinion. A more fruitful attitude is to assume a responsibility to give reasons and arguments; if a reason or an argument is faulty, seek out better ones, and replace your opinions as superior alternatives are revealed through the act of conversing. We ought not to fool ourselves into thinking that the company conducive to this style of conversation is easy to come by. No institution can be counted on to provide it. Thus when you set out to learn, remember this: the freedom to speak one’s mind ought to be understood as the freedom to better one’s mind, and when we agree to disagree, we agree not to learn.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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  • Gi Gi

    Like most people, I enjoy having the opportunity to express my opinions but also, like most people, I like to avoid arguments. Arguing is an activity that evokes negative connotations. I have been involved in my share of arguments that devolve quickly from reasoned discussion into passive-aggressive sneering or insults. Reading your article and reflecting on some of my own experiences, which have lead me to be more avoidant in engaging in public debates, I realised that what is missing is a social code of behaviour which guides how we engage in debates.