On the Virtue of Disagreement

For most of my young life, I went with the flow. I was a good kid, following orders, obeying my parents, doing well in school. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had any discipline issues with authority figures.

But midway through high school, I decided to become a contrarian. Clearly, intentionally, and without hesitation. Now, I know that this is in no way unique, but it was a watershed moment for my own development, and I still carry the tendency even today for my brain to start itching ever so slightly if I haven’t had a good dustup in a long while. I adopted the attitude of “if I haven’t pissed off someone today, I haven’t been doing my job.”

Things came to a head when a classmate of mine, a girl for whom I’d previously harbored a secret crush, discovered feminism. She began to test the volume of her roar, and I took that as a signal to respond. Crossing swords over our adolescence-addled understanding of gender theory in English class, in the instrument locker, and at the lunchtable couldn’t have been more ridiculous or less important, but it was FUN.

At least, it was up until the moment of desperate frustration when she said to me, “Where do you get the right to your opinion?”

Whatever that opinion may have been, it’s been lost to the mists of memory. But the question remains, stirring up subtle feelings of shock and anger even today. Where did I get the right to challenge her, to express an opinion that contradicted her, to tell her that she was wrong?

Years later, my opinions, such as they were, have changed dramatically. With regard to feminism, I find myself much more sympathetic to the point of view that she was attempting to articulate at the time, even if my philosophical presuppositions have shifted dramatically from where hers (and mine) used to be (and, I presume, hers still are). I was wrong to think that, as I maintained even through college, the role of women in society should be determined by the writings held sacred by a particular religious community.

Some years back, I went online and searched for a letter I wrote to the student newspaper of my college. Published in the “opinion” section, it was titled “Women are Gifts from God,” and established (so I thought) my utmost respect for a class of people that was so favored by the divine that boundaries had been erected for their own protection. My mother thought it was lovely and shared it with her friends, physical evidence of my upstanding religiosity and faithfulness. A fellow student published a contradictory letter the following day, titled “Women are More than Gifts,” which called out my pious chauvinism and deftly deflated my spiritual ego. Though at the time I was angry and offended, my apostasy has significantly changed that perspective. A few years ago, I found my opponent’s email address and sent her a decade-belated note of appreciation, noting that her criticism at the time had finally been recognized and valued.

As an apostate, being wrong is a part of my history, a part of my identity. The realization that I was truly, seriously, emphatically wrong on one of the most important questions of the human condition is always with me. And I think for many people, there is a significant tendency towards anxiety of error, which is why those in psychology spend time studying the strong effects of confirmation bias.

I can see why that would be the case. Being wrong doesn’t just mean “incorrect” or “untrue.” We use the same word to mean “unjust,” “dishonest,” and “immoral.” The latest billboard campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation makes use of this double-meaning to antagonize the Catholic Church.

An erstwhile Catholic, now apostate.

And I think that people in general tend to internalize that second meaning of the word, so much so that to be wrong about something, even sincerely wrong, is to be thought of as being a bad person in some way. But being trained as a scientist, I had to accept being wrong as a fact of professional life. Being wrong about any given hypothesis is, scientifically speaking, just as interesting as being right. And I think that can be true about life in general.

Which is why I’m so in favor of disagreement.

Having a different opinion than someone else, coming to different conclusions, applying a different interpretation – this is essential. Without this interplay, the crossing of rhetorical swords, there’s virtually no chance of change. Assumptions go unchallenged, presuppositions remain undisturbed, and our personal paradigms rest sleepily in our subconscious.

Don’t think that I don’t like to be right. Of course I do, just like we all do, but I don’t want to be right by personal fiat. I want to be right if and only if what I think corresponds with reality. And the best way to test my rightness is to see if I’m wrong. It’s my hope that championing disagreement not as a personal slight, but as an intellectual virtue, will lead to the edification of us all.

So please, let’s agree to disagree. OK?

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