Agreeing to Disagree

“Disagreement agrees with me.” –Mike Pesca, The Gist

Honest opinion and in-good-faith disagreement seem rare in today’s media. Now, that statement may first conjure up the millions of blogs (ahem) that are nothing but opinions. But! I would challenge the ‘in-good-faith’ clause of many of those. The press, on the other hand, shies away from opinion in order to present an even-handed account of ‘both sides’.  (We’ll cover the value of the he-said-she-said approach to reporting another time, perhaps.)

Hence the brilliance of unleashing Mike Pesca upon the world in his new show, The Gist, on Slate. A short, daily podcast, The Gist typically covers around two topics from the personal (advice column follow ups) to the curious (the state of candy Peeps) to serious current events, like Ebola. And Pesca’s energy and, yes, opinion, permeates the show in a way I find refreshing. The ending segment, the spiel, is Pesca ranting—rant doesn’t need to be a bad word here—on the same mix of anything from the fantastic to daily minutiae.

Friday’s spiel was an argument in favor of arguments, couched in the context of debates on HBO and CNN around the very premise of Islam. Is it a bad religion or a good religion? You can, I’m sure, imagine some of the simplistic arguments on either side of that simplistic question. But Pesca was not diving into the specifics, but rather encouraging the exercise. Strip away the personal attacks and you have the basic elements of a debate. “There was a struggle over the definition of terms. There were competing assertions as to what the relevant facts were. There was a thesis offered…” Counterpoint. Counter-counterpoint.

Although Pesca cops to the increasing tendency to devolve into “shouting or bullying or baiting or clapping at the dumb parts,” he calls out for a (possibly imagined?) past when argument was intended not to make your side feel better, but to reach through the column to the undecided, even the other side. Because these are different constructions, of course. The cheerleading argument is much simpler and easier than well-framed persuasion.

I’m not sure that Pesca is imagining the supposed golden age of discourse quite right. Regardless, I would like to see his vision realized today. I think of the ongoing conversations St. Louis is having over the events in Ferguson, and now in the City as well, about black youth and police behavior. Many of my conversations are civil and respectful, with participants vulnerable enough to provide honest opinions and to be swayed by good-faith arguments and to stand comfortable in disagreement. But a fraction (and a majority online, unsurprisingly) of these conversations are sadly reduced to choir-preaching and name-calling. Disagreement is taken as evidence of treason. Even skepticism can be anathema in the wrong circles. That’s sad. Because as our society grapples not just with the inequities of race, but with our stance toward Islam, our approach to immigration, or our rights and responsibilities on the world stage, we need disagreement. The called-for ‘public debate’ after every significant moment must be both. To shut down debate is to shut out progress.

I think one thing wrong with our conceptions about disagreement is the tendency to write off opinions that are not our own far too quickly. But, as Pesca notes, “if the argument is sound, and if the disagreement is honest, then an expressed opinion doesn’t need to be subscribed to in order to be valued.” There is no debate without disagreement. No progress without debate over the facts and over our values. Let’s not squash that with conflict-aversion or simplistic name-calling. Let’s embrace it.

Unless, of course, you disagree.