A couple of weeks ago I was arguing with my girlfriend, I can’t even remember what about now. What I do remember is that at some point she shouted at me “You always think you’re right”. This struck me as a really strange thing to point out.
I mean, has anybody ever argued a point and not thought they were right? Or at the very least, been committed to behaving as if they believed they were right? Did she, at that moment, not also believe she was right? Naturally, I didn’t say any of these things at that moment because I value my health, but the point stands; we all think we’re right.
Sadly, the truth is we’re all wrong. Human beings thanks to our unconscious biases, limited perspectives and frankly quite feeble minds, are incapable of being right. We’re just varying degrees of wrong. None of us has spent enough time reading about an issue, none of us has experienced a situation from enough different perspectives, none of us is open-minded enough to have thought deeply enough about an issue to actually be right about it. That’s why borrowing the knowledge, experience and perspectives of other people through conversation is so valuable.
All of this is to explain why I so hate the phrase, nay the mere concept of agreeing to disagree. Lately, especially during these times of polarised political debate and “insurmountable” experiential difference, agreeing to disagree is coming to be seen as a civilised solution to a difficult discussion. Two people agree to talk at each other about their opinions, and at the end, agree to move forward unchanged. Gah!! Then what was the point of having the conversation?
To hear the other person’s opinion? I hate to break it to you, but if you heard an opinion that was different to your own and you didn’t learn anything, you might have been hearing but you probably weren’t listening. To expose yourself to different points of view? Try steel-manning the opposing argument (present the opposing viewpoint to the person that holds it, in a way that strengthens their argument, or at least in a way that they’d agree was complete). If you can’t do so, you haven’t gained anything from the exposure.
Instead, what you’ve done is squandered the opportunity to learn something or teach somebody something by having the courage to drill down into the problem. To explain your point of view well enough to help others to understand it. To have the humility to recognise that there is almost certainly another lens through which to look at the issue than the one you’re using.
I’m not claiming this is easy. Your views won’t come away unscathed, nor should they. But they will likely come away improved. You’ll see their strengths, you’ll learn their weaknesses, and you’ll be smarter as a result. Agreeing to disagree is simply a way of protecting ourselves from the hard work of re-evaluating what we think But it also protects us from the opportunity that re-evaluating what we think presents
As I said at the beginning, none of us is ever right. Not in any final, conclusive, “nothing more to say” sense. This doesn’t change the fact that most of the time we feel as if we are. In an ideal world, to even attempt a conversation would be to recognise that there may be something we’re missing and that the other person might be able to tell us what it is. Discussions aren’t opportunities to beat the other person into submission with your point of view, or disengage if you’re unable to. Disagreement isn’t an endpoint to a discussion. It’s a jumping-off point, from which we can all begin to learn.