The Dying Art of Disagreement
This is the text of a lecture from New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday, Sept. 23. The award recognizes excellence in Australian foreign affairs journalism.
To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.
But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.
And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.
This is a puzzle. At least as far as far as the United States is concerned, Americans have rarely disagreed more in recent decades.
We disagree about racial issues, bathroom policies, health care laws, and, of course, the 45th president. We express our disagreements in radio and cable TV rants in ways that are increasingly virulent; street and campus protests that are increasingly violent; and personal conversations that are increasingly embittering.
This is yet another age in which we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.
Nor is this just an impression of the moment. Extensive survey data show that Republicans are much more right-leaning than they were twenty years ago, Democrats much more left-leaning, and both sides much more likely to see the other as a mortal threat to the nation’s welfare.
The polarization is geographic, as more people live in states and communities where their neighbors are much likelier to share their politics.
The polarization is personal: Fully 50 percent of Republicans would not want their child to marry a Democrat, and nearly a third of Democrats return the sentiment. Interparty marriage has taken the place of interracial marriage as a family taboo.
Finally the polarization is electronic and digital, as Americans increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate “facts,” often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy. In the last election, fully 40 percent of Trump voters named Fox News as their chief source of news.
It’s usually the case that the more we do something, the better we are at it. Instead, we’re like Casanovas in reverse: the more we do it, the worse we’re at it. Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds.
It behooves us to wonder why.