Back in the good old days when all (or most) of the leaders in congress were white men, they would debate quite vigorously on the floor, jabbing ferociously at one another, and then, afterwards, would have a drink together and, perhaps, play golf. This, I have been told, is gentlemanly behavior.
It is also, I believe, the only way that agreeing to disagree makes sense: when both parties are more or less equal in status.
A few years ago, in the midst of yet another conversation about rights and sexuality (I may be a broken record, but the damned record player is broke!), I was offered the option of agreeing to disagree. I declined. At the time, I knew I was uncomfortable about the option but I had no clear way to express my disagreement. I have a little more clarity now.
I return to that previous conversation because it ended, at least for me, when I asked the question: “do you believe you are more equal than I am?” It was a clumsily phrased and, in retrospect, awkwardly phrased question. But it got to the heart of what was at stake.
It’s tempting to agree to disagree. It’s tempting because your opponent seemingly grants you the same rhetorical authority without, in fact, conceding your position is valid. The trick: I allow you to have an idea, a position, to exist in the same world as I do. But I need not concede that we are equal or deserve the same rights. And, in fact, to grant your position changes nothing about mine. Within the realm of the political, this strategy has real consequences.
This point was brought home to me in the little encounter between John McCain and Ellen. In response to her (unusually) well-reasoned defense of gay marriage, McCain (who needs a nickname, McShame? But I like shame too much. Ideas anyone?) McCain said, “let’s agree to disagree.”
Yet, I’m not sure what he conceded, if anything. He’s white, male, married, in fact, multiply married, which must mean he REALLY believes in marriage, and is campaigning to be president of the United States. He wields real-world power in a way that Ellen, for all her popularity, does not. Within this context, agreeing to disagree means accepting your place in that section, not this one, as Ellen eloquently put it.
This is not to say that all instances of this particular rhetorical formulation are as insidious; as a teacher and critic, I recognize its strategic usefulness, especially as a quite stubborn teacher and critic. (Stubborn and slow to concede, but I take both as virtues.)
It is, however, (my pronouns are all over the place) to begin or continue thinking about the implications of what appears to be a relatively benign and even respectful way to conduct a discussion. Let’s agree to disagree.