Agreement in the Time of Zika

2015 was pretty bad for the concept of agreement. Religious differences spurred despicable terrorist attacks; protests across the US resulted in antagonism between racial minorities and police; and caustic political vitriol seemed to be at an all-time high across the globe.

As one commentator wrote, “If you ask 100 different people how we should fix this country, you are going to get 100 very different answers. We no longer have a single shared set of values or principles that unites us, and therefore it is going to be nearly impossible for us to come together on specific solutions.”

 

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It seems like the only thing that everyone agreed on in 2015 was that no one agreed on anything. It also seemed like the perfectly ironic time to start the audio version for my philosophy book Everyone Agrees.

Ever since I first published the book in 2009, the response that I invariably receive from people when I tell them about it is, “Everyone agrees, huh? I disagree.” Look at all the politicians and road-ragers, they protested. Everyone most certainly does not agree! I’ve been called arrogant, naïve, and a “wily snake,” in response to the book. It was almost as if some critics delighted in finding someone with such an audacious claim as everyone agrees so they could succinctly and vociferously disagree.

As Taylor Swift so eloquently put it, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”

Of course, I understand what the critics were saying. People disagree all the time, it’s just a fact of nature. How could I possibly claim that everyone agrees? Admittedly, the title was meant to be hyperbolic and attention-getting but there’s truth to it if you look at it from a different perspective. The central premise of the book is that any given disagreement isn’t a fundamental, irreconcilable difference that will last forever but rather one of two problems in communication: 1) using one word for two ideas, or 2) calling one concept two different things. I’m not saying that people don’t have differences in perspective; I’m saying that we can overcome those differences with a bit of civility and rational effort.

But of course, that’s a problem in and of itself. Many people don’t want to put forth any rational effort to solve disagreements; they want to argue and “beat” people with their arguments. They’re not interested in finding the truth, they want to win–or worse, they just want others to lose. And if you’re one of those people, then the book really isn’t for you. Nothing I can say will convince you that all disagreements have logical resolutions and that increased knowledge is the key to that end. People who want to fight will do anything—even to the point of contradicting themselves—in order to continue to fight. And that’s certainly true with the ideas in this book. William James said that when an idea is new, people will say it’s not true. When its veracity becomes apparent, they’ll say it doesn’t matter. When its importance can’t be denied, they’ll say, well, anyway, it’s not new. I’ve learned that you just can’t win with some people.

On the other hand, you may be one of the many inquisitive and thoughtful people intrigued by the possibility of a rational solution to disagreement and the possibility of a universal morality. If you are, I want to congratulate you on being so reasonable and having such great taste. I encourage you to continue on this fascinating and often entertaining philosophical journey.

It’s true that the world is in a bad place today. The modern discourse between warring political factions, opposing religious practitioners, and every talking head on the news sickens me. But, I believe there is another way. With Everyone Agrees, I have not attempted to get everyone to agree with me on politics, religion, or even something like the NFL’s best quarterback—that would be foolish and contrary to my real purpose. Rather, my goal is to show our disagreements are really just flaws in our method of communication and that we actually agree on much more than we appear to—even when it comes to those touchy subjects. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, even people who fight actually agree—they agree that fighting is the right solution.

I’m optimistic about the possibility of universal agreement because the ideas espoused here reflect much of the time-tested philosophy of past centuries and modern thinkers but also because I see the effect of the principles when they’re used in real life and they work! Like everyone, I have friends and acquaintances who say some pretty bizarre things with which I disagree (especially on that bastion of trolls, social media). But instead of laying into them about how they’re crazy or idiotic, I simply ask them to define the terms that they use that may be causing the difference in perspective. I try to see it from their point of view, and above all, I give them the benefit of the doubt. The shocking thing is that while people don’t overtly change their minds from these methods, the disagreement at hand often miraculously disappears.

If you want to see for yourself, the next time you discover a disagreement with someone about a topic, simply ask them to define their terms—to clarify what you’re actually talking about before you start at their head. Chances are you’ll find your disagreement was merely miscommunication and that you actually agree.

With simple everyday proofs like those, I’m cautiously hopeful for the future of civil discourse. We’re all in this together and we can turn this thing around. With that sense of hope, I offer the first book of Everyone Agrees.

 

JSB Morse

New Orleans

 

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