no more agree to disagree

Hang with the Intramuralist long enough, and one swiftly learns there are two popular phrases which oft prompt a rapid, negative (albeit playful) response: “It is what it is.” And… “Let’s agree to disagree.”

“It is what it is” simply feels hollow to me. It’s more what we say when we don’t know what to say — or — when we don’t want to say any more. I remember it used years ago to describe a brawl between players and fans and to describe a high-profile, celebrity divorce. Surely, in both of those situations, there was more to say.

My sense is “let’s agree to disagree” is primarily employed in order to ensure relationships don’t suffer. I get it. I just wish we would commit to more. Too often, the retort creates an easy exit to difficult conversation, when if worked through thoroughly and respectfully, it’s an opportunity for growth and the broadening of perspective.

I reflected upon said phrasing when coming across Lynn Uzzell’s recent contribution to the RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which “explains the major themes that define the American mind.” Uzzell teaches American politics and rhetoric at the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University. She shared an essay entitled, “Madison’s Five Lessons for Overcoming Polarization.” The entire essay is excellent; hence, excuse my much too-concise, but longer-than-usual, blog post edit. If we could overcome polarization, we would no longer have to agree to disagree; we could do more. Writes Uzzell…

“There has never been a time when our nation wasn’t divided by partisanship. Yet some eras are more divisive than others, and few of us would deny that we’re living through an especially polarized time. For those who don’t trust their instincts on this question, numerous surveys bear out a collective hunch: polarization really has gotten worse in recent decades.

We don’t lack for probing examinations of the causes. Ezra Klein blames modern social and news media. Charles Murray notes that ordinary class divisions have become intensified through American ‘super zips.’ Some studies blame the nationalization of local politics, while others suggest that even our leisure activities are exacerbating political divides. Predictably, each side blames the other for increased radicalization within their respective political parties.

While many of these studies provide genuine insights into our current condition and how we got here, too few have grappled seriously with the most pressing question: How do we get beyond the hyper-partisanship? Lessons drawn from our preeminent constitutional founder James Madison might prove helpful… Madison not only lived through one of the worst epochs of American partisanship but also helped lead the country past that unruly epoch and into greater harmony. That’s why his lessons are worth examining today.

Lesson 1: Teach Classical Rhetoric to America’s Youth.

… The greater ‘free speech’ scandal is the one that nobody talks about: that most colleges and universities aren’t teaching their students the purpose of free speech… It wasn’t so long ago that an education in classical rhetoric was deemed an essential part of enlightened self-government. When Madison attended Princeton, he heard lectures on ‘Moral Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Eloquence’ from none other than John Witherspoon.

And Madison’s interest in the subject outlasted his college days. In 1784, he ordered a copy of Hugh Blair’s popular Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. ‘True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied,’ argued Blair. The proper study of rhetoric is much more than the artistic arrangement of words; it “‘eaches to think as well as to speak accurately.’

It’s not fair to castigate today’s students as ‘snowflakes’; they’ve never been taught a better alternative to disinviting, protesting, or shouting down campus speakers who challenge their presuppositions. If the standard curriculum included classical rhetoric, they would be equipped to engage logically with speakers expressing diverse viewpoints – to discover for themselves whether their visitor was a sophist or a Socrates, or something in between. Even better, their taste in speakers might become too refined for the most inane of the campus rabble-rousers.

Lesson 2: Find Creative Ways to Encourage Both Sides of Every Argument.

… Madison was not naïve. He understood that ‘the one-sided publications which happen to predominate at particular periods’ created a ‘delusion’ in the minds of people who encountered only perspectives that reinforced their own opinions. He whimsically suggested that the perfect solution might be an arrangement whereby each sheet of newspaper was printed on one side by a press representing one party, then printed on the other side by its rival. That way, readers could not avoid ‘both sides of every question,’ and ‘truth would always have a fair chance.’

Given the insularity and nasty tone of today’s media ‘bubbles,’ Madison’s suggestion might require further refinement. Currently, both sides in the political debate are writing in such polarizing fashion that a media diet that included listening to the other side’s overheated polemics would not likely moderate or broaden anyone’s opinions. Studies have shown that the experiment may have the opposite effect. Far more constructive would be publications or events designed to engage opposing sides in a format that encouraged civil disagreement…

Lesson 3: Socialize with your (Political) Enemies.

… Madison’s administration established a social change in the nation’s capital — one owing perhaps more to the president’s vivacious and charming First Lady. Dolley Madison instituted regular Wednesday ‘drawing room nights’ at the White House, and everyone was invited. Her nonpartisan parties became so popular that they were known as ‘squeezes.’ One guest, Pennsylvanian Representative Jonathan Roberts, observed: ‘By her deportment in her own house you cannot discover who is her husband’s friends or foes.’

Of course, partisan rancor did not magically disappear over whipped syllabub and ice cream, but it was softened. One may disagree, vehemently, with a dining companion, but it becomes harder to demonize him…

Lesson 4: Never Allow Political Disagreements To Get Personal.

… In his public speeches, Madison could be a forceful voice for his political party, but he never allowed his criticisms to get personal. Toward the end of his life, Madison grew even more scrupulous: he actively concealed the faults he discerned in others. Dolley explained his editorial practice when preparing his private papers for publication: ‘He desired me to read them over, and if any letter, line, or word struck me as being calculated to injure the feelings of any one, or wrong in themselves, that I would withdraw them or it.’

… Madison’s active avoidance of all personal affronts, even during political disagreements, is a standard of conduct sadly foreign to today’s political discourse. Yet ad hominem is listed among the logical fallacies for a reason: it never improves our political understanding but invariably poisons our political atmosphere…

Lesson 5: Repentance.

As Madison grew older, he eventually regretted some of his youthful excesses… Madison later described feeling ‘consciousness & regret’ over those earlier compositions. Although he did not repent the positions he had defended, he thought these essays breathed a party spirit ‘which was of no advantage either to the subject, or to the Author.’

… One of the biggest problems with a hyper-partisan era is that it produces excitements that tempt even capable and well-meaning individuals into misbehavior that they might spurn in better moments. Madison was right: there is no excuse for such vitriolic behavior; ultimately, the only recourse is regret, remorse, and a resolution to do better in the future. Unless our political and thought leaders adopt this lesson and reconsider their own contributions to today’s toxic political climate, there is no hope for improvement.”

Uzzell continues, noting that “the stakes are high, since the surest and most final way to resolve polarization is through armed conflict.” That gets a little scary to me, as she asserts that “the most hyper-partisan era in our history, after all, was not the 1790s; it was the 1850s, which ended in the Civil War. Every civil war is simply partisanship that got out of hand.”

Every civil war is simply partisanship that got out of hand.

We can learn to overcome polarization. But we must do more than look down on another, demand they think like me, or silence and shut them down. We must do more than agree to disagree.