Agreeing to Disagree

I was eating with some friends when the discussion of politics came up as it always does. The conversation started when I was telling a story about the latest conspiracy theory I’d heard. We were having a laugh about it when someone asked who I heard it from and it turned out we unknowingly had the same friend! Someone else in our group asked how we could be friends with someone that believed such nonsense and talk turned to respecting people who you don’t agree with. I asked if they agree with all of their friends about everything and then so no, obviously not, but there have to be limits. This made me think – when we stop talking to people we don’t agree with, isn’t it our own positions that suffer the most?

Now, there are levels of disagreeing with people. My sister has always preferred chocolate ice cream while I prefer vanilla. When we were younger my mother would sometimes give us a few coins to take down the street for an ice cream, but only enough for one so we would have to share. (Part of my mother’s scheme to keep her children from being selfish I’m sure.) At first this caused quite a fuss as each of us wanted something else. Eventually, though, we figured out a compromise – we would alternate between flavours. Even in the worst case, we still had ice cream.

Other disagreements are not quite as sweet, though. Professor Emeritus at the University of Massechusetts and Visiting Professor at Lahore School of Economics Anway Syed writes of the intolerance of dissent that plagues society.

The people of Pakistan have become notorious for their intolerance of the dissident. Many of them will ridicule opinions of which they do not approve. Some of them will resort to physical violence against persons who think unconventional thoughts. A man, presumably a religious fanatic, recently killed Salmaan Taseer because he thought the governor had criticised a law that prescribed death penalty for anyone who had detracted from the Prophet’s (PBUH) high status and honour. He considered the governor’s presumed failing as despicable enough to merit death. He was obviously not tolerant of opinions different from his own. Consider also that we have Shia-Sunni riots periodically in which members of the two sects kill one another. Acts of violence go beyond sectarian strife. We know of cases in which members of different factions of the same political party have exchanged blows and thrown furniture at each other in party meetings. Supporters of rival candidates in elections have often fought one another.

Professor Anway writes that things are beginning to change, though, noting that,

A few days ago I saw a television channel’s interviewees say that if their MNAs did not do something to bring down prices and make gas and electricity available to consumers on a regular and more equitable basis they would not get their constituents’ votes in the next election.

This is the way democracy works. The people will elect the leaders to move the country forward. If they are satisfied, they can re-elect them. If not, they can elect new leaders. Everyone is held accountable on election day.

But what about between elections? Perhaps someone proposes a law that I don’t like, or threatens to repeal a law I do like. The fact of the matter is that the only way to advance your cause is through convincing other people. You can’t force people to change their minds. Guns may make you feel powerful, but it’s actually an illusion. The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that violence is a tool of the weak, used by those whose ideas are not powerful enough to be convincing.

How many martial law administrations have we lived under, and yet every single one has fallen to democracy not through violence but through the strength of the idea of freedom in the minds of the people. It is the same force that keeps alive the Palestinian cause, the same force that brought down the might Soviet Union, and the same force that swept away apartheid in South Africa and America.

This is why even though I don’t agree with my friend, he’s still my friend. Maybe you would think he’s an idiot, but he’s my idiot and I will defend his right to be an idiot. And he would do the same for me. I’ve stood awkwardly many times when he’s strongly defending me to people who are even crazier than him.

Besides, I would rather he was telling me about his crazy ideas so that I can explain to him why they’re crazy. And even if I don’t convince him today and he still holds onto his crazy ideas, at least we’re talking about things like civil people. We agree to disagree with each other. Then we go out for ice cream.

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