The Artlessness of Disagreement

Credit: Plato and Aristotle in discussion (Credit: Raphael, from “The School of Athens”)

In the context of the two recent Liberal Arts days on BCB’s campus that sought to examine the meaning of liberal arts studies and the role of discourse within them, a recent op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement” was shared with the student body. In his speech, former Wall Street Journal contributor Bret Stephens details the allegedly tragic loss of ‘proper’ discourse on American college campuses, by which he means discourse which contains productive disagreements. He illustrates a world in which the ideologies of “junior totalitarian” college students engender the “bullying” of speakers they don’t like. He paints their vitriol against mostly conservative speakers as the result of an early “miseducation,” as the ugly culmination of an illiberal culture that has engendered a culture of ideological intolerance, in which those who would seek to educate themselves in higher thought irrationally bar the thoughts of those with whom they disagree. He decries a phenomenon that has been discussed ad nauseam in regards to U.S. institutions of higher education. What usually follows from these debates is an ambiguous call for the return to an alleged prior culture of ideological tolerance — a call that assumes such a time existed and ignores the fact that historically marginalized people’s voices have rarely been welcomed in the realm of this “tolerance”. Whether or not this is Stephens’ goal, his proposal ultimately amounts to a call for the rectification of the alleged “infantilization” of today’s youth in the US.

To support his arguments, Stephens calls forth his time at the University of Chicago, where he was taught the art of “interrogation.” His time there, he says, was not blemished by dogmatic instruction, but rather enriched by the freedom to interpret the texts he read with an open-mind: one could say he engaged in charitable reading before considering and potentially disagreeing with the ideas the texts presented. This form of education, so central to the project of the liberal arts, is being lost, according to Stephens. The liberal education that he received is being replaced by a reflexive, almost dogmatic opposition to those who  have unpopular opinions. At the University of Chicago, Stephens learned to “cultivate an open mind” and to “treat no proposition as sacred.”

In the same section of his speech, Stephens unveils another epistemological rule-of-thumb taught to him at the University of Chicago: “Every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea.” He cites the “quarrels” between such intellectual mainstays of the West as Socrates, Nietzsche, Plato, and Aristotle to prove his point. Here, Stephens’ speech drifts into an abstraction of disagreement that divorces its form from its content. Indeed, the vessel of disagreement, no matter what it may contain, is rendered intellectually valid when any “great idea” is an alleged disagreement with another such idea. Stephens has introduced yet another ambiguous term into the mix: “great ideas.” We can only glean from his speech that such ideas are inscribed into a philosophical canon that our society holds, or at least should hold, dear. But what makes these ideas “great?” And what constitutes an “idea”? In the current political climate, it really depends on whom one asks, as every individual’s differing ideological adherences draws this individual to consider different ideas as “great.”  

Whatever constitutes an idea as great often lies within the interests and presuppositions of the idea holder, and to what extent the idea in question facilitates the satisfaction of these interests or the confirmation of the presuppositions. The term “great” itself is ambiguous as it contains a value-judgment of beneficiality while also connoting that it has moved or continues to move the world and is seen by the body politic permanently. The notion of “greatness” thus enshrines intellectual fame and/or the endowment of a good upon society.

But it is difficult to ascertain what a great idea is in Stephens’s mind, and therein lies the danger of accepting his notion that disagreement arises in the relation of “great ideas” to one another: The danger of treating certain ideologies as “ideas” is that those “ideas” that prescribe harm to people become viable as such  when one is free to disagree with them. For example, not too long ago, the “ideas” that gave birth to segregation and colonial rule in the U.S. and elsewhere were more than acceptable, and yet still very politicized. Slavery in the U.S. was not only practiced by many Founding Fathers, but actively debated for decades before the outbreak of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. It wasn’t until the 60’s that the Civil Rights movement further strengthened the rights of African Americans. And yet, African Americans in the U.S. still suffer higher poverty rates and police brutality. So, while debate and conflict eventually led to a betterment of the civil rights of African Americans in the U.S., they nonetheless did not solve this crisis, and hundreds of thousands of non-white people have suffered in the U.S. as a result. Hence, this conception of the power of ideas is flimsy at best and dangerous at worst. The philosophy that Stephens espouses is oblivious to the material and political realities of actual individuals and groups, potentially putting people at risk and weakening their capability to disarm harmful ideologies and overcome the ideologues who mean them harm.  

To take a recent example, when current Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, was invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony, around 100 students walked out in protest of his anti-LGBTQ politics (such as his support of gay conversion electroshock therapy, which is undoubtedly a form of torture) [*1]. One could argue that this walkout serves as a perfect example of what Stephens decries, namely an unwillingness to listen to diverging opinions. Rather, it is actually a reflection that diverging opinions have been listened to and outright rejected. In the words of one of the protesters: “I have family members who are directly being affected by his policies, so I felt like I needed to stand up. [*2]” The rejection of Mike Pence as a viable political option does not come from a hatred of free speech and the refusal of unpopular opinions just because they are unpopular, but rather from a previous engagement with Pence’s thought and an opinionated rejection of it. This rejection, this disagreement, derives from concerns about the sociomaterial realities of LGBTQ and immigrant students [*3].

This is a disagreement, but not the sort of disagreement that Stephens calls for. While Stephens advocates for (dis)agreement after debate, these students engaged in a disagreement prior to any such debate; they outright rejected the validity of Pence’s ideas. They refused to acknowledge them only as ideas but rather saw the toxic ideology from which they arose. These students are engaging in an “identity politics”, which, contrary to Stephens’ implication that such politics circumvent what he calls “actual thinking,” actually can arise from an engagement with the other side of the political spectrum. Moreover, whatever Stephens means by “actual thinking” is not discernable: presumably “actual thinking” for him implies reasoning that is somehow divorced from one’s identity. Though he doesn’t explicitly outline a causal relationship between identity politics and the “replacing [of] individual thought”, he certainly implies this by accusing those engaged in this type of politics of not testing “the quality of the thinking” but of only considering “the cultural, racial, or sexual standing of the person making [an argument]”. This is not to say that identity politics is good or right, but rather to say that Stephens disavows such politics through utter generalization, which in turn denies identity politics its due.

Stephens’ further use of generalized assertions about the nature of the “good society” makes it difficult to understand exactly what he is trying to say. To take one example, he argues that disagreement is the foundation of any “decent society.” What he means by a “decent” society, and what even constitutes disagreement in his mind, remain relatively unclear throughout, hastily conflated with  a culture of “liberalism” that reaffirms the “freedom of the individual.” Stephens’ argument thus rests on a framework of the good society that emphasizes an ambiguous “freedom” as its apex. This freedom is conceptually ambiguous in that its limits are not defined, and so its practical application cannot be specified. Stephens would seemingly be in agreement with the admittance of most ideologies into the sphere of debate, even those ideologies that advocate for the harm of certain members of society. His call for open-mindedness even towards “those with whom we disagree” foreshadows a dangerous acceptance of ideologies that seek to impose arbitrary hierarchies. Here, again, disagreement is abstracted to a mere difference of opinions, and ignores the consequences of content in ideological battles and debates. I am not calling for an abolition of disagreement, but rather a more reasoned assessment of which opinions should be afforded the privilege of being ‘artfully disagreed with’ and which should be outright rejected.

Departing from this ideological foundation, Stephens attempts to parallel contemporary crises of the “dying art of disagreement” to the struggles of oppressed people. Indeed, he argues that disagreement “gives hope to oppressed people everywhere,” pointing out that Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others served to liberate the oppressed by virtue of their tendency to disagree. Stephens’ logic fails on several levels. Firstly, the extrapolation that disagreement as such propelled the causes of such emancipatory leaders fails to account for the contextual conditions and the content of their disagreements. Parks and Mandela both disagreed not merely with a”status quo,” but with violent and oppressive, racist socio-political systems. To equate the so-called “disagreement” of people like the Prime-Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, among others, Stephens deems to be “illustrious,” with the disagreement of the genuinely oppressed, renders the notion of disagreement so abstract as to be applicable to virtually any intellectual, political, or moral conflict. Not only have the likes of Modi and Kissinger been perpetrators of oppressive acts (the former being an open Hindu nationalist and the latter having supported Pakistan during the genocide of the Bangladesh War), but they also come from positions of power, which makes “disagreeing” with or just simply rejecting them an act of speaking truth to power, not mere “bullying”. Disagreement, in the sense of disagreeing through speech alone, is always contextual and is not in and of itself a political or societal good.

In addition to this egregious abstraction, Stephens seeks to divorce the realms of politics and morality when he laments that “this is yet another age in which we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.” The separation between morality and politics is especially farcical. In such a worldview, where one stands on the debate about “racial issues,” which Stephens lists, among other topics, as an issue that many Americans disagree on, says nothing about their moral character. Perhaps more specifically, this worldview forbids one from condemning, on a moral and ethical basis, the potential bigotry of others. To condemn is not to disagree, but rather it is a wholesale ostracization of those ideologies deemed — known — to be harmful to certain groups of people. It is absurd to believe that morality is not present in almost every instance inscribed into many of the debates that dominate contemporary political theatre. Indeed, the reason that so many people become so impassioned about such issues is because of their moral implications, because of how people perceive what people should and should not do. Disagreement about political issues almost always inscribes a moral value-judgment into the dissenting statement. Stephens describes politics and morality as somehow isolated from one another, when in reality they are part and parcel of each other.

Since disagreement purportedly grounds any decent society, it is disconcerting to see Stephens construe it in so broad and yet so exclusive a manner. It seems that genuine disagreement can only come from those who are in enough power to have prominent voices. When Stephens’ envies the “illustrious” status of those like Modi, he unintentionally unveils yet another flaw in his logic: he more readily assigns the label of “disagreement” to the opinion of a select few. Stephens eschews developed analyses of power structures and instead displays the powerful as victims of infantilized protesters whose lives are directly impacted by the ideologies of those against whom they protest. One particularly troubling equivalency that he makes in order to illustrate the inverted roles of perpetrator and victim is his claim that “interparty marriage has taken the place of interracial marriage as a family taboo.” Stephens makes the ridiculous comparison between an institution that was not legalized in all fifty states until 1967 to Democrats maybe not being okay with their children dating Republicans (and vice versa). Interracial couples face institutional obstacles and potential violence, “interparty” couples face awkward Thanksgiving dinners. Even if we want to argue that somehow “interparty” couples are subjected to victimization, they are simply not subjected to the same systematic victimization that interracial couples have been. Making this comparison is not only insulting, but it is an insidious way of using very real structural struggles to prove a specific ideological point.

Just as with this problematic analogy, Stephens fails to recognize the institutional asymmetry of power that white right-wing speakers have as opposed to the students who disagree with them. He pays no mind to the fact that certain speakers invited to college campuses, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, bring with them ideologies that are actively threatening to the oppressed peoples that Stephens’ claims to have sympathy for. For example, Yiannopoulos has harassed trans students sitting in his audience [*4]. Their harmful visions and actions are made out to be mere “disagreements,” while the outcry and outrage of targeted people is deemed as “bullying.”

I am by no means calling for the uniform banning of any speaker that some students find offensive. I am merely trying to point out the false characterization of disagreement that pervades contemporary Western liberal thought and that simplifies, if not outright ignores, the power structures that have engendered the rage of some students on college campuses. And though Stephens’ contends that the right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution is violated when students protest against speakers, he fails to recognize that the First Amendment only protects speech from government interference, and that any other such organization is allowed to suppress speech within its own institutional confines. I don’t support the notion that the law should lend us our definitions, but even Stephens’ appeal to legal arguments falls away after the slightest scrutiny. Furthermore, what ultimately follows from this speech is an ambiguous call for the return to an alleged prior culture of ideological tolerance, both making the claim that such a time existed and ignoring the fact that historically marginalized people’s voices have rarely been welcomed in this realm of this “tolerance.” It remains to be seen exactly what Stephens would deem to be ideologically acceptable in the sphere of public debate, and, if he deems that any ideology be so tolerable, how he expects to suppress the simmering fascist tendencies arising throughout the West in the current political sphere.



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