In these days of heated disagreements online between Facebook friends and distance foes often conversations either end with so much digital huffing and puffing, the rare point of cognitive confluence, and often with the saccharine and amicable appeal to “agree to disagree.”
This appeal comes from several motivations, at least some of which are likely related. One is to end the conversation where it is regardless of any expected outcome. The person offering this alternative might just be too tired or too bored to continue. That is all well and good. With attenuated attention spans and over-committed lives, persisting in online conversations heading nowhere with a stranger feels rarely worth the time and effort.
Another motivation is to end the conversation, but on amicable terms. Each response is a new brick of anxieties placed in a growing wall of alienation from the person with whom you are engaged. To avoid the risk of severing ties you find the one thing that you can agree upon and that is the obvious observation of disagreement itself.
These two competing reasons of relative exhaustion or relational disconnection seem reasonable enough to end a conversation at least on good terms before it dissolves into inevitable blocking. But there is another reason why this happens that is perhaps no less reasonable, but far more damaging.
By saying that you should “agree to disagree” you are saying not only that you wish to end the conversation for the reasons listed above in the short term, but to end it permanently. It is at once an admission that you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that your interlocutor’s position might be more correct than your beliefs are willing to give and a removal of at least one thread of conversation from the relationship you have with the person on the other side. It is a rather weak but clever power move that sets the terms for the relationship and the conversation moving forward.
Rather than remove the agency of the people with whom we disagree by dismissing the conversation altogether, we should be more willing to allow disagreements to exist in the context of our human relationships. It is a way of reaffirming each other’s power to acknowledge another person who has ideas and at least a modicum of competence to communicate those ideas as well as to reaffirm one’s own status as one empowered to raise issues that may be controversial to those who disagree with one’s position.
Simple disagreement is also a path to greater vulnerability with each other. By affirming the disagreement with no qualifications, we are inviting the conversation to continue with the possibility that the positions we hold so dearly will be proven to be wrong at least in part. Simple disagreement invites the possibility of change where dissolving into a false agreement demands resolution where in reality there is none forthcoming.
In an effort to construct conversation that does not demand false resolutions of civility or concede an end of dialogue but rather is brave enough to admit each other’s vulnerability, and demands the possibility of change even if in the distant future, let us simply disagree with one another and allow the conversation to persist.
Don’t you agree?