For many people, the word disagreement carries a generally negative connotation. For some this seems to be because they associate disagreement with other ideas and experiences also understood in negative terms, including hostility, animosity, contention, anxiety, and coming under attack.

On the other hand there are of course also plenty of people who enjoy watching -- or even engaging in -- fierce arguments, but many of them are likewise hostile to disagreement in that they believe that the point of arguing is to win and thereby put an end to disagreement. In other words to them a good community is one where the community members share a single political outlook and basic view of life.

Hostility to disagreement could be in part a result of the frequent displays of hostile disagreement in media presentations about political issues, in which people yell at each other and denounce each other in apparent attempts to score points and look good at someone else’s expense.

Another possibility is that there is a specifically American hostility to disagreement because the original nation was founded by people who declared adherence to a single creed, that being the Lockean ideology of individual rights and limited government. In other words, to be an American was, from the get-go, to agree with a certain idea. And thus those who appeared not to agree were sometimes experienced as “un-American.” Some scholars (e.g. Louis Hartz) make the argument along these lines: the United States was created consciously in a revolutionary time amongst people who did not share a history of having for centuries lived on the same soil. Nor did they share a history of struggle against a landed aristocracy, a state-sponsored church, or a feudal system of loyalty and property. Nor did they share see themselves as sharing a culture. In other words perhaps for Americans national identity has always been a fragile thing, a thing that can easily feel under threat. Maybe, then, disagreement feels to some like someone is being unpatriotic.

By contrast, many traditions of dialogue, deliberation, conflict resolution, contestation, and debate are based on the idea that engaging in disagreement, and living in a community that includes strong disagreement, are potential positives (see disagreement practice directly below). In different ways, each of the above-named practices involves a turning towards disagreement - a making space for it in creative ways that allow it to be worked and moved through or mined for their communicative and relationship-building value. From this angle disagreements can be a tremendous source of learning and growing together. As Parker Palmer has said, "How did we forget that our differences are among our most valuable assets?"


Conversation Catalysts: 

Hartz, Louis. 1991. The Liberal Tradition in America. Harvest Books.

Hofstadter, Richard. 2008. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Vintage.


Phil Neisser

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