On disagreeing to agree

Twice during this peculiar year, I have had the interesting phenomenon that, while having a conversation with a friend, they have truncated the flow and stated “we are not going to agree on that. Let’s drop it”. The subjects being discussed were, although at times controversial, nothing that would lead to a break in the friendship, or downright enmity between us: climate change and the reasons behind the political chaos of my home country (the second friend is a compatriot).
I found the “interruption” perplexing; aren’t friends people with whom you can discuss ideas, even if they are opposite between the discussers? The idea that people with whom I have had a relationship for decades cannot talk about one subject felt, in a way, detrimental to the relationship. Again, if we cannot talk about something (within limits), what kind of friendship is that?
The events reminded me of the American vogue of “agreeing to disagree”. The phrase, prevalent very frequently, is in reality detrimental to our society and to culture in general. When somebody states that “we will agree to disagree”, nothing gets discussed and, therefore, nothing of any value takes place. One thing that seems to be prevalent in today’s culture is the belief that discussion, conversation and debate is only meaningful if at the end somebody is declared a winner. Somebody must prove her point beyond doubt or no true value was gained from the conversation. This, in reality, is not what most exchanges between humans are about. Sure, some times in conversations a person can see that it is the other that holds the truth, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. In real situations, nobody gets to “own” the other person (another American phrase currently in vogue); what civilized people do, and something that is a cornerstone of friendships and relations, is to listen and judge the other person’s point of view as objectively as possible. That is the goal.
In order to do that, some conventions must be accepted. Debate, even heated debate, involves the initial position that one may be, after all, wrong. If either party starts from a position of infallibility, then true learning cannot be achieved, even to the point that simple sharing of information is hindered. Every single religious schism in the history of men revolves around that aspect: a dogmatic view is held by a group, a second one is held or develops in a separate group and, because the possibility of doubt regarding which position is correct is inaccessible, no possible common ground can be found. Religious schisms seldom have led to cordiality between the divided factions, precisely because when one approaches civilized debate with 100% certainty that the others are wrong, conducive conversation is seldom achieved.
In our modern “agreeing to disagree” (A2D), the situation resembles schisms but with a twist: nobody is better off in the end because no data or different points of view were exchanged. The A2D is by now standard procedure in political and religious conversation; in the original Discuss Religion thread (in TAT1.0), on many occasions one person would state that the conversation was rude and should be dropped. To which one could have added, having left that talk behind: and what could we have learned from that? If we get to a level in which A2D is the standard, what subjects will all of us be able to talk about? Conversations in which both sides agree wholeheartedly seldom lead to improvement, if only because the main tenets of understanding are not involved: healthy skepticism, proper data analysis, yielding to the other side when a point is clearly made, listening to the whole exposition of the idea before passing judgement. Agreeing seldom needs analysis, while disagreeing, done properly, demands it.
The silly phrase is of so little use that it can be turned around and still leads to the same, perilous state: Disagreeing to agree (D2A) means that at least one person is bent on not changing his position, regardless of what evidence the second person provides. It is as useless and as dangerous as the first position, because, again, civilized debate and conversation is nipped at the very start. It seems as if there is an unavoidable clause that states that every conversation from which the two practitioners start from separate positions must end in quarrel, the precise opposite definition of friendship and respect. Of being civilized.
The rules of debate, civilized debate, have been clear for years: honest exposition, admittance of the initial axioms, non-use of semantical gymnastics (a difficult position for those in the legal profession) and non-detouring of the subject. If the rights of a minority are the point of a discussion, deviating to state that some other issue is of equal importance is a trick of frequent use and perfidious cheapness; it is usually a good sign for the person that receives that argument, as it is a sign that the claimer is reaching for straws to save his position. Still, it is not proper and civilized debate must be cleaned of such chicanery.
A2D is dangerous. In a world that gets more complicated almost daily, this evasion from honest, adult debate and conversation leads to entire populations unable to talk to others, unable to hear the voice of the contrarian, unable to consider the possibility of being wrong. Most importantly, unable to see that changing a position is not a sign of weakness, but rather what smart people do when the evidence proves their initial statement was not the truth.
If you and your friends come to blows at conversations in which different positions are held, your friendships are not of much use. Agreeing to disagree and then dropping the subject is one rather rude way to tell the other “I hold no value for your opinions”, and if the other person does A2D, he is telling you the same. Very little progress lies there, and it is in reality not a sign of civilized people.
It is a sign of intellectual cowardice. And undue cowardice, of any kind, is to be frowned upon. And that, I hope, is something everybody can agree on.