Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Trouble with Agreeing to Disagree

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and with the joy of the meal comes the dread of the conversation with family. The Thanksgiving table comes up often in my classroom. Sometimes I use it as an image for the intimacy and celebration engendered by a shared meal. More often, I describe it as the primary site for trying to avoid the most delicate subjects. I majored in political science and theology, meaning that I find intellectual and personal happiness in discussing the two things that one is not supposed to bring up at the dinner table. As the quintessential dinner table, Thanksgiving is surely not the place for these kinds of things. In order to preserve the peace, we often remind ourselves that we should "agree to disagree," a kind of ceasefire on all things contentious so that we might more properly enjoy our time together.

I've always hated the phrase "agree to disagree," mostly because it means that the conversation is over. As an extrovert and as a person whose life is basically making arguments, this is awful. I do recognize that my reaction to this beloved phrase might just be about temperament. The more introverted folks in my life may see it as a long-awaited reprieve from confrontation. But temperaments aside, I think this phrase is trouble.

One of the things I've noticed in my first few years of teaching is that students aren't so much unable to articulate themselves or ignorant of facts but that they are, as religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero says, "allergic to argument." I've been baffled and saddened by a total lack of interest on my students' part for having any opinion at all. A popular explanation for this is that the lives of young people (myself included) have become frivolous: selfies, hashtags, tweeting and texting has turned them (us) into self-absorbed, celebrity-obsessed, and politically apathetic drones. There are two main problems with this narrative: 1) social media demonstrates as much heated debates as it does frivolity (if not more), and 2) the apparent apathy of younger generations is not really their fault.

In defense of point 2, I give you the Thanksgiving table. Our collective insistence that we avoid all complex and contentious topics for the sake of peace both reflects and exacerbates our collective inability to discuss the most important things in life. The reason why people don't want to discuss religion and politics is because these are the values they hold most dear AND the ones they are probably least capable of defending. For the sake of politeness, we have neutered the spaces in which we might learn how to engage in important discourse. While I understand that people don't want to yell and fight, what I can't understand is how muting the conversation altogether will ever help us move beyond yelling and fighting to actual discourse.

Maybe young people feverishly post their every thought and feeling online because they lack the offline spaces in which to express themselves. And perhaps it appears frivolous because they are not properly formed in their own homes for responsible defense of their own positions.

I'm not insisting that people pick fights with their families. Agreeing to disagree might be an important safety valve when a conversation gets too heated, but has it become our default position? Maybe apathy has unwittingly become the new side dish for our Thanksgiving meals.