On disagreement

Which side of the line should we be on? (Marrton Dormish)
Which side of the line should we be on? (Marrton Dormish)

A very persistent volunteer for one of America’s main political parties keeps calling and leaving messages on our voicemail.

I wish she wouldn’t.

I don’t watch much television, but when I have recently it’s been full of political ads lauding one candidate and attacking another.

It’s that time of year after all. It’s a presidential election year. The closer the election gets, the more the rhetoric ratchets up and the more pronounced the disagreements seem between opposing parties.

As if red and blue disagreements weren’t enough, I recently went with some friends to see the documentary film Hellbound, which highlights a polarizing Christian doctrinal issue.

American literary theorist Stanley Fish says some interesting things about “disagreement” in his essay “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” Although he is specifically referring to religious disagreements as the result of interpretive differences, I think what he has to say also applies to politics (and personal relationships):

“To someone who believes in determinate meaning, disagreement can only be a theological error. The truth lies plainly in view, available to anyone who has the eyes to see; but some readers choose not to see it and perversely substitute their own meanings for the meanings that texts obviously bear. Nowhere is there an explanation of this waywardness (original sin would seem to be the only relevant model), or of the origin of these idiosyncratic meanings (I have been arguing that there could be none), or of the reason why some readers seem to be exempt from the general infirmity. There is simply the conviction that the facts exist in their own self-evident shape and that disagreements are to be resolved by referring the respective parties to the facts as they really are. In the view that I have been urging, however, disagreements cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view. It follows, then, that disagreements must occur between those who hold (or are held by) different points of view, and what is at stake in a disagreement is the right to specify what the facts can hereafter be said to be. Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled. Of course, no such settling is final, and in the (almost certain) event that the dispute is opened again, the category of the facts ‘as they really are’ will be reconstituted in still another shape.”

The above quote comes from Fish’s book Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities, and anyway, it provides some food for thought. Not that there isn’t room for honest disagreement in life. I just think it’s important for all of us to occasionally take a step back and realize that our point of view has a lot to do with how we perceive the “facts” in politics, relationships and beyond.

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