A title like that will make most people consider skipping this post. If your curiosity made you decide not to, I suggest you reconsider. Odds are you won’t care for what I have to say.
What I have to say is simple: Quit running away.
People disagree about all sorts of things. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is how rarely people actually disagree. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Let’s agree to disagree.”
My instinct has always been to say, “Why?”
Why shouldn’t we disagree? Why shouldn’t we talk about religion or politics at the dinner table? It may turn out we have irreconcilable differences, but so what? I may never feel the way you feel, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand why you feel that way. It doesn’t mean I have to dislike you. Even if I do dislike you, it doesn’t mean we can’t have a reasonable conversation… does it?
Is conflict verboten?
It seems that way. When Adolf Hitler decided to conquer the world and slaughter millions and millions of people, who tried to stop him? Nobody. Nobody wanted a fight so they dismissed him. They made excuses for him. They convinced themselves he wasn’t a problem. Hitler made no attempt to hide his plans, boasting about them in speech after speech. It didn’t matter though. Nobody wanted conflict.
The same thing has happened time and time again. The genocide in Rwanda could have been prevented if people had stepped up. They didn’t. Nearly a million people died because society won’t accept conflict. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were slaughtered while people argued semantics because people refused to just say, “This is wrong.”
You may think refusing to discuss politics with a neighbor is not the same as standing idly by while people die. I agree. It’s not the same. The two are very different. They are similar in only one thing: the cause is cowardice.
I’ll always remember something that happened to me in high school. I was walking down a hallway when a teacher called my name, stopped me and angrily said, “We don’t allow that sort of language here.” I was confused. I hadn’t said anything inappropriate, and I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. I just stood, dumbfounded, as the teacher lectured me about using foul language. Suddenly I heard:
Look, Mr. X, I don’t even like Brandon, but he doesn’t cuss.
It was a classmate of mine. We weren’t friends. We barely spoke to one another. He didn’t need to speak up. He could have ignored the situation. Nobody would have known. He didn’t though. For whatever reason, he spoke the truth as he saw it and kept me from getting written up. He prevented an injustice by joining in a conflict.
People don’t do that very often. People’s first reaction when there’s a conflict is to get rid of it. On the internet, that often means leaving a conversation. I discussed a fitting example on this blog just last month. Anthony Watts, proprietor of the popular blog Watts Up With That?, had censored me at his blog after I disagreed with him. His explanation was:
[snip – Brandon, I’m sorry but as stated above I’m not discussing this anymore. We’ll simply have to agree to disagree – Anthony]
He didn’t want to talk to me, so he censored me. He could have walked away from the discussion. He didn’t though. He made sure he got the last word then forced me to go away. And you’ll note, in doing so, he even said we’ll “have to agree to disagree.”
Why? Why should we have to agree to disagree and shut up? Even if the two of us weren’t going to continue discussing the matter together, why should that mean neither of us could talk about it? Watts says:
No, I told you that would be my last comment on the issue, you kept pushing it anyway, demanding a response. #pointless
But that’s completely untrue. I never demanded a response from him. The simple reality is Anthony Watts didn’t like being challenged, and he reacted by shutting up the person who challenged him. He used his power of censorship to avoid conflict. To justify it, he made up an excuse out of thin air.
People can always find an excuse. The excuse doesn’t have to be real. It doesn’t have to make sense. All that matters is it allows people to avoid a conflict. That’s why people love to say you’ll have to “agree to disagree.” It’s not because they think your opinion has any validity. It’s because they want you to shut up.
But that’s not all they want. Anthony Watts could have said we’ll have to “agree to disagree” and walked away. He didn’t. He made sure he got the last word. That’s because leaving would only resolve the external conflict. It wouldn’t resolve the internal conflict.
You see, when a person’s views are challenged, they have to think about a conflicting view. They don’t like that. Watts avoided it by censoring me. That’s more extreme than usual. Most people use a more subtle approach. An example was recently given on this very blog when lucia (of The Blackboard) explained she hadn’t seen a comment I made about moderation, saying:
I suspect I never read that response of yours. I think I decided the argument was silly. I could write more, but I don’t think it’s worth it.
My moderation remark came after an exchange in which lucia had, on multiple occasions, made things up about what I had said. The moderation remark was simply that she needed to correct those misrepresentations. She didn’t. Instead, she left the discussion because she thought it “was silly.” I don’t know why she thought it “was silly.” I don’t think there’s anything silly about telling a person:
To put this bluntly, you’ve misrepresented things many times on this page. It’s to the point you’ve flat-out made things up about what I said. You did the same with grammatical points, completely making things up about a word. And when I pointed that out, rather than acknowledge your obvious mistake, you just mocked me for pointing it out.
I think whether you agree or disagree with what I say, we should be able to agree about what it is I actually said. I think whether you like me or not, we should be able to agree I don’t cuss.
But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is after lucia’s comment about not seeing my previous moderation remark, we both expressed our views about what had happened. I went second, concluding my comment by saying:
But I’m perfectly content to leave these last two comments as the last word on that matter.
We had both expressed our views. The external conflict was over. We could have both walked away. Only, lucia chose not to. She made a comment, asking me questions. I responded. She never said anything more.
Did she read my response? I don’t know. She asked me questions. I’d assume she would want to read the answers. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe she just forgot. I have no way to know for sure. All I know is she, like so many other people on the internet, feels free to randomly leave discussions in order to escape conflict whenever it suits her. Naturally, it seems to suit her best after she’s got one last jab in.
I picked these examples for a reason. Both involved conscious decisions to escape conflict. That’s not usually the case. People usually avoid conflict through more subtle means. Ironically, they tend to do it by creating conflict.
Think about the distinction between internal and external conflicts. A screaming match involves conflict, and a fistfight may hurt, but neither requires any sort of internal conflict. You don’t have to think about what you believe in order to call someone names. You don’t have to wonder if you’re wrong when punching a person in the face.
The truth is conflict isn’t verboten. Society loves conflict. People thrive on conflict. They just need that conflict to be external. As long as conflict is external, nobody has to think about it. Hitler didn’t cause so much damage because people were afraid of action. Hitler caused so much damage because people couldn’t reconcile the need for action with their other desires so they ran away.
The people who join mobs are often the same people who won’t have a disagreement over the dinner table. The people who say you should “agree to disagree” are often the same people who will mindlessly hurl invectives at you for expressing your views. The people who want to end disagreements often are the ones most determined to get the last word.
The truth is, any two people can reach an understanding if they want to. Any two people can understand why the other feels the way he feels. Any two people can accurately express the other’s reasoning any beliefs. The only thing which gets in the way is people’s unwillingness to question themselves.
Or to put it more bluntly, it’s because people are cowards.