Redeeming “Agree to Disagree”

There isn’t much on earth I hate.  I dislike certain people who have hurt me, and I’m not inclined to give them very much scope to do so again.  At least not soon.  Even if I forgive them (which generally I try), it doesn’t mean trust is re-established easily.  God might be able to do that, but I learned long ago not to mistake myself for God.  I take a little more time. Sometimes a lot more.  But “hate” is not the appropriate word for how I feel towards those people.

I can fairly confidently say that I “hate” liver.  My mother tried to feed it to me, hiding it under other foods, calling it by other names.  Something about it always made me gag.  I couldn’t swallow it, and I’d spit it into my napkin and discreetly put it in my lap while giving the dog a hand signal to sidle up to my chair.  At a dinner in a theological college dining hall a few years ago, something was served that I couldn’t identify. It looked attractive, even smelled appealing. Everyone else at the table seemed to be enjoying their meal, and I thought I would as well.  Then, I took a bite.  The texture immediately told me it was liver, my gag reflex kicked in, the napkin went to my mouth and I discreetly hid the offending organic matter in my lap.

Where are the dogs when you need them?

The exhortation to “agree to disagree” has become, for me, a piece of conversational liver without the presence of a dog who will be happy to make it disappear. When it is fed to me, I gag.  I can’t swallow it. I’m not sure I even have a napkin into which it can be spat and my disgust politely hidden.

I hate the phrase “agree to disagree”. 

Most of the attempts to disguise this piece of conversational offal are more refined than my mother’s efforts to take liver and call it something else, or smother it in cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions from a can.  But there it is, and it stops good conversational things from happening, just as inedible “food” fails to satisfy hunger.

Starve a human body long enough, and eventually it loses the ability to take in nourishment through normal, healthy means.  Starve conversation long enough, and in time the capacity for healthy dialogue disappears.

Because what “agree to disagree” usually means is “Shut Up.”  Usually with two words inserted between, one of which I’m sure my mother would have preferred I never learned to spell.

It’s dressed up in fancy sauce with elegant garnish.  But that’s how it functions.  It not only stops good things from happening in the immediate moment, but over time, it diminishes the possibility for healthy functioning.

The body where I’ve seen “agree to disagree” function as semantic liver is the church–the Body of Christ.  It doesn’t show itself as such on the surface–liver is unattractive straight from the butcher, and it needs a lot of cover-up to make it palatable.  In church circles, “agree to disagree” usually conforms to the following process:

  1. A person in a power-up position serves the liver. (This might be the ordained minister, long-standing member of the congregation, church warden, someone assumed to be a major financial contributor, the loudest person in the meeting, or the person who wants to take the power-up position from someone else).
  2. It is done with a practiced smile that covers up the unpalatability of what has just been said.
  3. If it is a one-on-one situation, the power-up person initiates a physical contact that may or may not have the full consent and participation of the power-down person. (A pat on the arm. A half-hug. Offering a handshake–who would let their minister’s hand hang limply in the air?)
  4. If it is a group situation, the power-up person leans back in his/her chair, and moves the meeting on to the next item.
  5. The conversation is starved.

There is almost no scenario I’ve ever witnessed where “agree to disagree” was invoked that could not be fit reasonably neatly into this framework. “Agree to disagree” is usually said in a way that would seem friendly and respectful, but it is anything but.  It is a way of reminding others that the speaker is the one who controls the conversation. It tells the recipient that what s/he has to say is not valued, and that further discussion of potentially important issues is just not going to happen.

On rereading Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, “agree to disagree” seems to me a pretty clear indicator that someone is hijacking the semantic environment for his or her own purposes, which are probably self-serving–and often at least unintentionally dehumanizing to one or more parties.  That makes it a classic case of crazy talk.  When sane people try to respond intelligently in an insane semantic environment (which is what “agree to disagree” creates), they almost always fall into a form of stupid talk from which they suffer. And as I’ve said a few times now, we should try to minimize crazy and stupid talk in the churches.

We could, however, go in a different direction, and make “agree to disagree” into sane, intelligent talk.  And we could do that by really agreeing that disagreement is a good thing.  Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has used the term “good disagreement” a number of times in the 14 months he’s been in post.  And I think we need to learn to disagree well, and we need to do that by realizing that our interactions and decision making in the church could be richer than the binary formula of agree/disagree.

We can do this by agreeing that we are going to disagree.  And then, rather than using “agree to disagree” as a conversation ender, we can agree that our disagreements:

  1. Do not need to be resolved.
  2. Do not need to be a zero-sum game.
  3. Do not stem from the goodness of some of the parties and the badness of others.
  4. Are indicators of lively engagement and commitment–usually to the same causes and ideals.

The commandment not to have other gods comes into play here.  Agreement–everyone saying the same thing, wanting the same thing, thinking the same thing is good–has become a bit of an idol in Christian circles. We need not to worship the god of Agreement.

What I think we need to do is agree that disagreement can be a very good thing. If everyone has the same opinion (or more likely, if only one opinion “counts”), it is fairly certain that regrettable decisions are going to be made, bad courses of action followed, and people are going to end up being damaged.  A multiplicity of opinions does not guarantee good results.  But when different viewpoints–even wildly opposing viewpoints–are considered respectfully and taken into account, better outcomes are more likely.  Maybe not everybody wins the big prize, but fewer people lose dramatically.  Perhaps those in power-up positions can’t maintain them, but the power will likely balance out better.

We need to agree to disagree.  But we need to agree that we’ve done this badly, but rather than enforcing agreement, we must commit to doing a better job of disagreeing.

Fortunately, there were things my mother could feed me instead of liver–things that were at least equally healthy, but that didn’t disgust me. I could grow and flourish without liver.

Conversation and decision making–not exclusively, but especially in the church–needs more than the semantic liver of “agree to disagree” in the form we usually see it.

Like liver, the way church-talk tends to use “agree to disagree” is a filter. It keeps things that have been deemed undesirable from getting past it. We need to stop using “agree to disagree” as a semantic filter, and nourish even our most heated debates in some other way.




5 thoughts on “Redeeming “Agree to Disagree”

  1. I realise how much I prefer the honesty of trying to say – I can’t participate in this discussion further without behaving badly – can we leave it where we are (for the moment/ for ever/ till next time) but this happens more in good relationships than it does communally or in bad ones.

  2. Reblogged this on Past Christian and commented:

    I took part in a discussion this morning on a friend’s Facebook page (the owner of the Lay Anglicana blog, which I heartily recommend). It was about agreement, disagreement, and the partial ownership of truth. It brought this to mind, and I decided to re-blog it. Because I think we need to hear it. A lot.

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