Clichés are a junk food of language usage, bulk matter that provides calories to bad arguments, while filling no one’s need for worthwhile thinking. But just as with candy and chips, clichés are easy to consume and easy to offer to others. I imagine that this goes back to an ancient hominin who got a tingle out of repeating endlessly a particular grunt, though such things were blessedly not recorded. Today’s purveyors of the trite, however, have the amplification of social media to spread their verbal corn syrup.
The example I will discuss here is a remark that shows up in discussions that have not come to a mutually acceptable conclusion, the plea to agree to disagree. Those who ask for this are attempting to leave the conversation without having to admit that their argument failed to be persuasive. Acceding to this request is the path to sloppy thinking.
This goes beyond the ordinary emptiness of the cliché. To agree to disagree is to drop a blockage into the dialectic process that is the mechanism of intellectual discussion. This is not to say that the truth is always found in the middle or that compromise is a desired end. Instead, it is a recognition that opposing points of view have things to teach each other and that a complete answer is often something that we can only approach asymptotically. To agree to disagree is to stall that progress. Admittedly, time runs out, and we have to move on to other things, but we should be willing to leave discussions unfulfilled so as to stimulate future work, rather than taking the opiate of silenced dissent.
But worse than that, the statement that we will have to agree to disagree implies that I need the other person’s permission to hold a differing view. It is the pearl-clutching sigh of the plantation matriarch who wants to move on to dessert, the yearning of the lazy to maintain things as they are because considering the flaws in the status quo is too much work.
And this is a demand that I cannot tolerate. My duty is to the truth — to making my claims of fact conform to reality and to engaging in a valid reasoning process — and to values that I can hold without shame. I can be argued into new positions if the facts and logic compel me, and I hope to be open to being shown evidence of any errors that I have made. Certainly, social media provides ample opportunities to be corrected. so long as one can ignore the noise that tries to drown out conversation. But I am under no obligation to participate in forcing agreement. I feel no need to cosign a proclamation at the end of the discussion in the manner of diplomats when wrapping up a conference. Saying that we must agree to disagree is a kind of intellectual bullying.
Fortunately, this only works if we allow ourselves to be maneuvered into it. It is better to live with dissonance until a resolution can be found than to dismiss the music. It is better just to disagree.