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When is it a mistake to agree to disagree?

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Sometimes “we cannot just get along” because we don’t see a deeper mutuality that underlies our conflict. And sometimes, we become so invested in our cause that a deeper mutuality is not available.

Take the issue of taking down confederate monuments? Is it a mistake to talk with people who oppose our views?

A basic premise of my book The Ethical Process, and even more explicitly in Learning through Disagreement, is that people with opposing views know something I do not know. Dealing with disagreement is a learning process. The books outline a process of exploring the different observations, values and assumptions of opposing views for the purpose of making the best decision possible given what everyone knows. (No one knows everything!)

Not a bad idea, but not always workable, especially in a context defined as a war between winners and losers. In fact, it’s not so much the arguments we make, but rather the context in which they are made, that determines whether learning—on both sides—is possible.

When should we agree to disagree? When accepting our differences honors personal dignity. People disagree about religious truths, for example, but forcing agreement has certainly caused much more harm than honoring differences—agreeing to disagree.

On the other hand, when agreeing to disagree supports a status-quo that protects white supremacy and dismisses long standing injuries, then it’s a mistake to agree to disagree.

The necessary “deeper mutuality” is not available because it has been torn apart by crimes against humanity. Once these violations have been repaired, then we can see what we might learn from each other. The first step is to create a climate of justice.

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