Agreeing to Disagree

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By: Kirstin Ringelberg

Recently there was a post on this blog about discussion—about the importance of talking things through, talking things out, really addressing our differences together in conversation. I couldn’t agree more. An important part of that conversation moving forward is that everyone speaking be civil but honest. I say civil because I want to differentiate it from the idea of being polite. My experience at Elon has been that during the day, people are pretty polite. They avoid conflict, they try to find the nice thing to say, and they bottle up what they are really thinking unless they think everyone will agree. It’s a risk-averse mentality, and I get it. But I think one of the consequences of this daytime politeness is a lot of nighttime (and online) behavior that is a lot less polite—and not in a good way. It’s as if the bottling up of real ideas, thoughts, and beliefs during the day, when we could probably discuss them reasonably, turns into rage, confusion, and abuse when we have the security of anonymity or the bravado provided by alcohol or drugs. The things I’ve learned about what happens amongst students outside of my classroom is horrifying, and I think in some way it must be connected to this daytime false politeness, especially when the behavior is sexist, racist, heteronormative, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-atheist, or otherwise located in attacking those who are not in the mainstream of our campus identities.

Try to find the courage to start saying what you really think during the day. In the classroom. Civilly of course. But stop thinking about politeness, because that somehow seems to include just avoiding when you disagree with someone. Hold the door to Lindner if you see me walking toward it from 50 yards away, if it makes you feel better. But don’t sit silently if I say something with which you disagree. If we don’t disagree in public, during the day, when we have a chance to discuss and learn from our differences soberly and face to face, we don’t learn either how to understand the points of view of others or how to get better at supporting our own views—or changing them. So I would say yes to discussion, and also yes to disagreement. I know a lot of folks at Elon who identify as allies in one way or another, but who don’t step up when there’s real skin in the game, in part because of risk-aversion—because in our community, calling someone out is seen as impolite. But if you don’t step up when you hear something discriminatory, you’re not an ally, you’re actually helping to support the discriminatory behavior. We’re all cowards sometimes, and I hate conflict as much as you do. But practicing disagreeing would help us all be a lot less fearful of the risk of disagreeing with someone when it really counts. Which could lead to much better dialogue about important issues across campus, and a lot less hatefulness outside of the classroom.

It is also an important part of developing as an intellectual. I know—it’s bad enough that I’m discouraging politeness, but now I’m encouraging intellectualism! World turned upside down. But I think this all links together. When I put students in groups for discussion, the students who are more comfortable with the idea of publicly developing their intellects get to work—they get into the conversation, they challenge comments from classmates they think are incorrect (civilly), and they substantiate their disagreement with the texts we’ve read or good argumentation. The students who are polite, who want to fit in with the “normal” folks, or who want to be “popular”, do one or both of the following two things: they talk about how hard, confusing, or stupid they thought the reading/issue is, or they start chatting anecdotally about themselves. This is a way of avoiding real conversations, potential disagreements, and learning. And it works like a virus, spreading through the room, so that now people who might challenge each other and develop healthy, intelligent forms of discussion and disagreement instead “join the club”. From what I’ve seen, the club is politely anti-intellectual during the day and shwastedly posting up hate speech, or worse, at night. Don’t join the club. Learn to civilly disagree instead, and make both the classroom and the dorm better places to be different.

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