Agreeing to Disagree and Other Strategies for Shutting Down Meaningful Dialogue

In a recent podcast episode, The Gentile and I hosted Meredith Gould, author, social media guru, and mosaic artist.  She is also the moderator of the online conversation, #interfaithchat.  One of the topics we discussed, in between lessons on social media etiquette and musings on the proper buoyancy of a matzo ball (BTW, it is negative), was barriers to interfaith dialogue.  While there are many barriers to having meaningful interfaith dialogue, there are two sure-fire ways to shut down any dialogue on any topic: declaring the point moot and Agreeing-to-Disagree.  They are variations on a theme, but the latter is much more insidious.

Thanks to Rick Springfield not telling Jessie’s girl he loves her because “the point is probably moot,” most people believe that a moot point is one not worth even talking about.  Declaring a point moot is their attempt to mute the conversation.  This point is so unimportant, the thinking goes, we don’t even need to talk about it.  Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.  A point is considered moot when, even though the decision has no real-life consequences, the matter is important enough for discussion and debate.  In a Moot Court, for example, no one is going to jail at the end of the trial, but the legal and Constitutional issues involved in the case merit serious public discourse as they are fundamental to a society based on the rule of law.  Of course, this application of the expression “a moot point” comes from a time when debate and public discourse were considered to be noble and valuable way of reaching decisions and not just an opportunity to humiliate someone by using flashy linguistic jujitsu.  So, the next time someone declares, “That’s a moot point,” say, “Why yes, yes it is.  And, that’s why we need to continue discussing it.”

Agreeing-to-Disagree is perhaps one of the greatest conversation stoppers ever created.  Saying you want to agree to disagree allows you to end an uncomfortable conversation in what appears an amicable fashion.  However, the Agreeing-to-Disagree tactic is both a cop out and is intellectually disingenuous. There are two issues with this tactic.  The first is that it is based on the assumption that any conversation is a zero-sum interaction: that there is a winner and a loser, that the goal is to get the other person to agree with you.  What we have here is failure to communicate, as well as a classic example of the I-It relationship and a chance for me to riff for 300 words on Martin Buber and the importance of seeking the I-Thou relationship.   What we also have is an implicit bias for the inherent binary opposition of the zero-sum and a rejection of the more nuanced Rogerian argument.  In the Rogerian argument, the goal is not to convince the other of the rightness of your position (and thus persuade them to change their position) but rather to persuade the other to acknowledge the validity of your position.  This acknowledgment does not require the other to abandon their position in the least.

While all this so far can be attributed to a lack of rhetorical sophistication on the part of the interlocutors the second issue with the Agree-to-Disagree maneuver is reflective of a deeper problem in our discourse: Declaring yourself “willing” to agree to disagree is a confession you came to the conversation with an already closed mind.  You are confessing an unwillingness to entertain, for even a moment, that there is validity in some, in any, of the other’s position.  And, there is a very pragmatic reason for this: self-preservation of the ego.

American philosopher and psychologist William James, in his theory of Pragmatism, explains that we hold in our minds paradigms of how the world operates and of our place in this world.  When we receive information through any of our senses, we try to match it up to existing paradigms.  If the information does not match an already held paradigm, we must either reject this new information or restructure the paradigm in order to accommodate the new information.  In some cases, this requires the complete rejection of an existing paradigm and its replacement with a totally new one.  The decision, James argues is based on how much ego is invested in the existing paradigm.  The greater the ego involvement, his theory goes, the more likely the new information will be rejected and the old paradigm reinforced.  From this point of view, we can see that even the slightest amount of validity in the other’s position poses an existential threat to us.  If even 1/1000’s of their position might possibly may be true, our entire world view and construction of self will come crashing down.  Better to “agree to disagree” and close down this discussion than take that risk!

Agreeing-to-Disagree now is a barrier to meaningful dialogue in two ways: first, it ends the conversation in a faux-friendly manner, and second, but more importantly, in means you were never in the dialogue to find any meaning in the first place.  We will never find common ground if neither party is willing to entertain the idea that there is even a modicum of validity in each other’s views.  How, then can we find any meaning in our interaction?  How can we learn from each other and grow? How can we transform the I-It relationship into an I-Thou?

While this may all be very interesting, you might ask, “Isn’t really just a moot point?”  Why yes, yes it is.


5 responses to “Agreeing to Disagree and Other Strategies for Shutting Down Meaningful Dialogue

  1. I agree. Unfortunately, we live in a time when each person thinks he/she possesses superior information to anyone who disagrees. This means there is a strong likelihood that the discussion will simple be the same as talking to a brick wall, at which point, the coversants could be declared crazy. At some point, we may lose the ability to discuss anything due to the absence of quantifiable results. And that might not be a bad thing, given our proclivity toward intransigence.

    According to the Planet of the Apes paradigm, humans arrived at the point at which they could no longer resolve their issues through negotiation and diplomacy and thus, devolved into the position formerly held by apes. Apes then evolved into the position formerly held by humans. Where does it all end? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it is the Asian version of cyclical existence rather than the Western version of a linear existence. We will just continue on the evolution/devolution continuum.

    As usual, I have probably interpreted your essay all wrong.


  2. Thanks to the living gehenna that is WP, the carefully crafted comment I previously wrote is gone…and of course, I can’t remember it! Basically this: thank you. I’m tweeting a link to this with a pull quote to the #InterfaithChat crowd because this is a truth we need to address. I’m hoping to focus on it next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another problem with true debate is the “straw man” accusation, which leaves the recipient with two choices, either drop the discussion or begin defending how their statement was not a “straw man” response, thus chaining the dialog. I have seen this happen many times, especially with online discussions.

    Liked by 1 person

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