In recent months, I have written on the current era of neoliberal politics and the disappearance of dialogue in the classroom. But this ebbing of healthy debate in our society is not uniquely occurring within the university walls. Far from it—for dialogue is a social practice that is almost non-existent online as everyone lives in their micro-cosmic political eco-chambers. Mute and block buttons exist not only for the frequent troller, but also to obscure the words of criticism and exchange.
In large part, the personal computer along with the Internet have resulted in a society where people no longer feel the need or desire to share differing views, to debate, to exchange ideas. Instead, people prefer to click their “mute” or “block” buttons. Or as I was told recently for expressing my disagreement for both US presidential frontrunners, “Fuck off,” is not an uncommon riposte to different thoughts. As the baseline for civil disagreement sinks, I have begun to wonder where critical thought can be expressed as more and more publications have become partisan political tools and around the dinner table there tends to be more verboten discussion topics than not, such that only the banal is considered acceptable social conversation today.
Equally as worrisome is the tired phenomenon of the past decade when in the middle of a discussion with another and she becomes so uncomfortable with ideas that differ from her own that she says: “Let’s just agree to disagree.” Uh, no. We don’t actually “agree to disagree” just because you are twisting our disagreement into some sort of tacit agreement whilst suggesting to speak for me. I do not agree with you and you do not agree with me. Why must we be manipulated into a tokenising version of agreement that seeks to both silence discussion while telling the other speaker, “I am so uncomfortable with disagreement that I am going to hijack this conversation to flip our disagreement into an agreement”?
Welcome to the twenty-first century of neoliberal apoliticisation where feelings are viewed as more important than material reality, political acts are tokenised as demonstrations of fashionable compliance, and where political action now seems more real in a Barbara Streisand film than on the streets. The phrase “Let’s agree to disagree” is politically anathema to anything remotely resembling dialogue much less agreement. It is also authoritarianism at heart that shuts down discussion just as the waters of certain subject matters are approached. And if ever there were a doubt about these silencing tactics, the past week since the US presidential election has demonstrated exponentially the tempest beyond the polling booth where agreement is not only requisite, but excommunication from various groups is the result of any disagreement.
Sadly, the apolitical subject today is well-versed in what not to say, how to resonate with the latest catch words to give the appearance of being politically engaged, just as his internal alarms of neoliberal self-censorship are set off by his fellow conversationalist who shares a thought. Oh no! You just had to mention that person, idea, or word! Let’s just agree to disagree because why expend any energy engaging with another where the Twittersphere is the locus par excellence for slamming the other with one-liners instead of engaging with ideas that might actually necessitate more than 140 characters to expand. Darn you, complete sentences!!
Certainly discussions can gravitate towards Clinton v. Trump or the pros and cons of free trade agreements. They can also shift towards the pros and cons of cycling versus hoverboarding, the best and worse places to hike, black or white truffles. The bottom line is that it is within political discussions that the “agree to disagree” platitude is pulled out to put the kibosh on the subject matter at hand. In an online discussion recently, I was told that this is a polite way of ending a conversation, a statement I found unbelievable since nobody would call this polite in the least. If anything, such a banality is passive aggressive whereby the interlocutor must couch disagreement in the language of complacency and “peacekeeping” while condescending to the person in order to exercise virtue signalling of the selfless nature. It insinuates a problem before there is actually any and assumes that the other person will just escalate if you do not shut her up right this moment.
Deconstructed however, this manoeuvre reveals that the problem emits from the person advocating to “agree to disagree.” This phrase becomes the tell of the subject who must confess out loud that another’s differing view makes her so uncomfortable that she is resigned to recite this catechism of agreement so as to waylay any future discomfort she might feel, surrendering an interaction with another in exchange for her inner calm. We are turned into her audience and psychoanalyst as this rupture of dialogue demonstrates her discomfort while we are utilised for her to show the world that she can maintain peace by “politely” shutting down her interlocutor.
Our task in the twenty-first century is to crack open this repressed discourse where speaking openly—disagreeing even—leads many to experience angst such that dialogue online or in real life is often challenging, if not difficult, to experience. The greatest risk today is that our culture is moving towards the normalisation of shutting down all discussion such that we must click thumbs up or fear challenging ideas for the rest of the echo chamber which will come on to play out a series of straw men and invectives.
Ultimately the horror at hand is not that we disagree, but that we are training ourselves and younger generations to fear disagreement and the potential change that can and does occur when two or more parties discuss their contrasting views. The spirit of dialogue is desperately in need of resuscitation.