How to agree to disagree

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week’s featured piece is History Versus Hagiography by Robert Ventresca.

I complained to a friend once that writing about historical controversies was singularly frustrating insofar as many readers, even those dimly aware of the facts of a particular case, presumed to know already the answer to the big questions. Such a disposition makes it difficult to achieve what we hope to achieve with sound, critical historical interpretation, which is to inform and above all to persuade. My friend’s advice was to gird myself for battle. After all, I had invited the fight in the first place by goading the giant.

Wise counsel indeed. Even still, I hold on to the ideal that informed discussion and reasoned argument about sensitive and controversial subjects, historical and contemporary, are essential to good conversation and meaningful dialogue in free and open societies. It’s what the American philosopher and writer Mortimer J. Adler usefully called “understood disagreement.”

It is difficult to engage in dialogue, to be truly open to differing viewpoints unless everyone involved in the conversation first recognizes the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints. More than that, those who disagree strongly need to be open to being persuaded to accept the other’s perspective through rational argument. Again, it’s about persuasion – about being open to the possibility of changing one’s own mind by first understanding the logic and empirical bases of another’s opinion, and perhaps even coming to accept it as one’s own, which would mean admitting it to be the rationally superior point of view.











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