Why we can’t ‘agree to disagree’


Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

When I venture into the world of right-wing politics, as I do from time to time just to make sure I’m right about being liberal, I see a complaint continually growing lounder: the left isn’t open minded, they’re set in their ways and if you dare to disagree you are cancelled without due thought being given to your perspective.

To their credit, I sometimes do hear more statements of open-mindedness coming from the (moderate) right than from the left. I hear things like: “I don’t think we need police reform, but we can agree to disagree,” “I don’t think transgender children should be allowed health care, but I see your point,” or “I don’t agree with gun control, but you are entitled to your opinion.” 

What I never hear is: “We need to end police violence now! But I am open to ideas about how white people actually experience more racism than Black people.” 

In that regard I concede their point, liberals tend not to respect opposing opinions in the way moderate conservatives do. Liberals are not open to this pseudo-respectful-disagreement for a number of reasons. Chiefly, liberal opinions tend to rest on the idea that if change doesn’t come people will continue to suffer, making it immoral to compromise, and also because Republicans and Democrats have different ideas on what constitutes a fact.

We should start with the assumption that facts exist. Which, in fact, they do. Then we move on to the assumption that all facts exist at the same time, even if they appear to contradict each other. For example, one fact might be you might know a police officer who is a good person, that can exist alongside the fact that our police force is systemically racist. It’s not to say you have to use all the facts when backing up an argument — that’s almost impossible given time constraints — but the more facts you use the better an argument is. 

A final assertion is we can’t agree to disagree on facts. The sky is blue, and we cannot argue about that. There is a gender pay gap. We can argue about what caused those statistics to appear, but not the existence of the statistics themselves. 

Despite the straight-forwardness of statements above, open-mindedness has spread to the point of considering lies as having equal value to non-lies. Open-mindedness means considering other perspectives, but if those other perspectives rely on lies then we shouldn’t have to consider them equal to our own. Barack Obama is not from Kenya, and nobody needs to open their mind to that idea once they have thought about it enough to realize he has to prove his citizenship to run for office. 

The second part of the respectful disagreement divide is the urgency with which either side of the political spectrum presents its ideas. Take a statement along the lines of: “I don’t think we need gun control, but I won’t argue with you about it because at the end of the day we just need to be nice to one another.” One guess we make about the person behind this statement is they don’t live in a neighborhood ravaged by gun violence. 

The idea that we can get past our political differences easily comes from the assumption that politics are trivial. They are, to people whose rights aren’t being legislated out of existence; that is straight, white, financially stable men. If someone can “agree to disagree” it means they are in a position of privilege or ignorant of the consequences of their opinions. People who would be helped by liberal policy can’t afford to amiably disagree because the status quo doesn’t benefit them. 

So, why is there such an emphasis on seeing each other’s opinions as equal and respecting another’s perspective? The comparably unpolarized era of the Dixiecrats came at the price of segregation, the Era of Good Feelings preceded the political fight against slavery, the unity following 9/11 lead to the Afgan War. When we stand united we forget we are standing on the backs of the downtrodden. Unity has a price, and time and time again the least fortunate are stuck footing the bill. Only through disagreement, and the refusal to back down and play nice, has any progress been made in America. 

If the biggest problem you have with politics is that someone arguing makes you uncomfortable, take a step back and recognize the position of privilege you’re in. We must stop trivializing politics and we must dig in our heels to resist the pressure of making fatal compromises just to defuse the tension. The tension is what makes change happen. If you believe in what you stand for, embrace it.