‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’

A popular Fresco from Raphael illustrating discussion between Plato and Aristotle.

“To say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong;…these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere…And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.” — Bret Stephens, former assistant editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, in a lecture at the Lowy Institute Media Award and a NYT op-ed piece.

The purposes of disagreement, he says, are to sharpen our thinking, open our minds, and sometimes, change them. The purpose of education is to “To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind.”

“Every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea. Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself. These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries. Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.”

“In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”

Individuals, he concludes, are “more than just an identity, and that free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments. More than ever, they need to be exposed to them, so that we may revive the arts of disagreement that are the best foundation of intelligent democratic life.”

Image above, Italian painter Raphael‘s fresco illustrating discussion between Plato and Aristotle.

 

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