How to Disagree in Politics: Thinking Deeper

Matthew LeBar ‘19

I’m the chair for the Center for Political Engagement, or CPE, an organization intended to bring together people with different political and moral worldviews to learn from each other. But taking seriously the nature of those differences rather than falling back on simplistic models is crucial, and I worry that often we use one of two incomplete perspectives on disagreement. These models subtly structure thinking about disagreement at the expense of consideration of more nuanced positions, and I certainly have found my own thinking limited by them.

The first is what we might think of as the “free speech warrior” viewpoint, and is often associated with the political right. Using this model, we ought to respond to different moral or political views by publicly confronting them with reasoned explanations of why we disagree, no matter how deep that disagreement runs. We must converse respectfully across worldviews, since to do otherwise causes unnecessary conflict and expresses disrespect for opinions that are as reasonably held as our own. Further, even if there are rare cases where we can’t treat opposing views with respect, we most surely defeat the views we find repulsive by rationally deconstructing their mistakes. Besides, suppressing ideas we disagree with wouldn’t work anyway – they’d worm their way back into discourse somehow, or worse, the mechanism of suppression would end up backfiring and suppressing our own ideas.

The second model, often associated with the political left, severely circumscribes the range of disagreement. Moral and political disagreements aren’t bloodless academic disputes; they’re conflicts about how we ought to treat other people. Many or even most political and moral issues, then, won’t represent something we can debate over a meal, but a deep split between us that rightfully prevents us from forming meaningful relationships. Further, often the best way to deal with these disagreements is not to legitimate them by responding to them with rational counterarguments, but to ignore, exclude, or even actively suppress them. Certainly, there may be some room for reasonable disagreements, like how to achieve or interpret shared political ends, but we shouldn’t confuse those kinds of disagreements with more fundamental ones. Disagreements that affect people’s lives ought not be treated like fun debates over whether a hot dog counts as a sandwich. They should be treated as serious clashes of value that run to the very core of who we are as people and how we live with others, because that is exactly what they are.

As I’ve said, I don’t think either perspective comes close to a complete understanding of the nature of political disagreement. Each, however, brings out the incompleteness in the other. The first model needs to accommodate the extent to which disagreements over morality and politics really do reflect differences that ought not always be bridged. Certainly we shouldn’t treat a Nazi with respect as if their views were merely misguided, so the question is what divides the views that deserve respect from those that don’t.

Further, when someone’s views aren’t formed through rational methods, or if they weaponize tolerance to express repulsive views, we ought not pretend those views deserve respect, and we may deal with them best by ignoring or shaming them. But the second model should take more serious account of the costs of cutting off relationships because of disagreements, especially when those disagreements stem from genuinely thoughtful and careful ways of thinking about the world. Refusing to treat someone as a moral peer because of disagreement is sometimes justified, but it’s a serious decision and should be treated as such. We shouldn’t sanitize those disagreements, but we shouldn’t demonize them either. Further, disagreement is a brute fact of life. Turning every disagreement into a fight will be enormously costly, especially since we’re certain to lose some fights. We are likely to do better by trying to find ways we can live with and learn from many of those we disagree with. The problem, again, is finding those ways, and finding which disagreements they are worth applying to.

I don’t intend this discussion to present a slam-dunk argument for any view, but to point towards deeper consideration of the issues of disagreement. Understanding them is difficult, and will require thinking carefully about exactly what questions we’re asking – are we worried about whether a response to some disagreement is imprudent or whether it fails to treat the disagreement with sufficient respect? Are we asking how individuals or institutions should handle disagreement? These considerations are complex, and we can’t work through them without incorporating multiple ways of thinking. I hope the CPE can provide opportunities to bring together these ways of thinking and others this school year. 

Matthew LeBar ‘19 is a Philosophy and Mathematics major from Athens, Ohio. Contact him at malebar@davidson.edu

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