Tolerance and Radical Disagreement

08 June 2019

What should you do in the face of radical disagreement? Do you live and let live, or try to convince the other person they’re wrong? Are some ideas just too terrible to tolerate? These are some of the questions we're tackling on this week's show.

In some cases, the best response to disagreement is just agreeing to disagree. If you like Marvel and I like DC, or you like Katy Perry, and I like Taylor Swift, what’s the problem? But when it comes to serious moral disagreements, that might not cut it. What if one person thinks abortion is a fundamental human right, and the other thinks abortion is murder? How can they get along?

One possible measure of success is tolerance: we can ask that nobody resorts to violence, or sabotages the democratic process. But grudging tolerance seems like an awfully low bar. How would you feel if your friends or your spouse barely tolerated you? Shouldn't you expect some measure of dignity, respect, and affirmation from your fellow citizens?

Even if you take a dim view of your fellow human beings, you still might not be satisfied with a policy of "I don't bother them and they don't bother me". Their views might strike you as not just wrong, but downright dangerous. And wrong views can to lead to the deaths of innocent people, or the destruction of the planet through climate change.

Silencing people who disagree with you, even if they're deeply wrong, would be morally fraught. But silencing isn't the only alternative to mere tolerance. You might hope to engage in rational dialogue that persuades others. If you do, it seems that in fairness, you should also be open to persuasion yourself. But then, opening yourself up to persuasion makes you vulnerable to various kinds of error. What if you open yourself up to flat-earthers, or Holocaust deniers, or homophobes who want to put queer people through conversion therapy?

Sometimes ideas are so ignorant and morally bankrupt that they're not worth considering. Or what if you open yourself up to a conversation with someone who doesn't want to sincerely persuade you, but is just trying to wind you up, or strong-arm you into supporting their cause, or make you click a link that generates advertising revenue?  

On the other hand, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and gay marriage were all, at one time or another, ideas that struck the majority of people as wrong, perhaps unworkable. What if everyone had dismissed those ideas just because they were unfamiliar? Not everyone who disagrees with you has to be foolhardy or bigoted.

Sometimes listening to the opposition can be useful, and sometimes it’s a waste of time that won’t get you any closer to the truth. The trick is figuring out which disagreements are which. When should we open ourselves up to moral persuasion? Please listen in, comment here, or send us an email and help us figure out the answer.


Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay 

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, June 9, 2019 -- 1:24 PM

As eloquently put by Clint

As eloquently put by Clint Eastwood in a Dirty Harry movie: A man's got to know his limitations. If I (or anyone else) tried to espouse, defend, refute, or change any/every cause, ideology or hare-brained notion that crossed my path, there would be no time for any other life-activity we might wish to pursue. Especially the ones conducive to leading a productive existence. This is relevant to a passage from Kenneth Burke's TOWARDS A BETTER LIFE, pg. 200: ..."Though no one would CHOOSE failure, we may yet maintain that failure is a choice, since one may persist in attitudes which make failure inevitable'...(cap. emphasis, mine). As I have agreed with John Dewey that beliefs are 'shady', I must also contend that we are hard put to alter peoples' beliefs when those are based on 'moral' or 'ideological' 'principles'. (Sorry about the scare quotes, but words, as they are used today,have little or no relationship with how they were used a hundred years or more ago.) Pursuant to Burke's declamation, people embrace failure at a rapid clip today, through their attitudes and behaviors. I may think Donald Trump is among the top three worst presidents ever to serve. A hundred other people may believe quite the opposite. I won't change my mind and they are unlikely to change theirs. These are, in the best sense of Burke's notion, choices, whether anyone does or does not consider them failures.

The actions involved, of necessity, lead to consequences, even if those are of minimal, or better, ephemeral impact. We could talk this issue into the next century. Most of us, alive now, will not be able to do so. Tolerance is what we have allotted ourselves. It does not resolve problems. And, it never will... Sugar-coated poisons are still poisons.

PDXMAXLady's picture


Thursday, June 13, 2019 -- 11:19 PM

I found it interesting that I

I found it interesting that I was listening to this program and enjoying it very much and then I believe it was Ken said he could not agree with Mormon’s. Really why do you assume that? Not all “Mormon’s” or Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as I prefer, fit the mold you believe in.. I believe in a devision of Church and State. I believe in loving my fellow man not judging them. I don’t believe the State should come into my Church and tell me what I have to believe. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump and I don’t believe in abortion but I don’t agree with mandating my belief. But can we agree abortion should not be used as birth control.? Again I was just a bit surprised I was identified as someone who you could not possibly agree with.
Thank you for the opportunity to explain my possibilities.

Eddie L's picture

Eddie L

Saturday, June 15, 2019 -- 4:59 AM

No one knows everything, but

No one knows everything, but to make an informed decision, we need to know first. Sometimes, people argue before they can gather enough information. Sometimes, they may have preconception and are biased in their opinion. Sometimes, they obtain the facts, think about them, but reach different conclusions anyway. People do not make decision in a vacuum. They have their immediate surroundings which they need to take into account and so it’s not surprising that they come up with different opinions. But for me, so long it’s an informed and rational decision and people are held responsible for whatever consequences their decisions bring, it is fine.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, November 13, 2021 -- 11:23 AM

The trick is not figuring out

The trick is not figuring out which disagreements are truth impinging or time wasteful. The trick is to consider the common life. We should always be open to moral persuasion regarding the common path.

Openness isn't to say that we should not be steadfast in our beliefs and reasons. We need to question those reasons. Change is born of unexpectedness. Listening to the man who has peed himself on the bus can teach as well as disgust.

I will always be a man who's open to persuasion. We need to rebuild what was never there. You can't do that without persuasion or worse.

I am channeling my inner Tim Finn more than a bit here. His lyric "Persuasion" is one of the pillars of my musical youth. I won't be talked out of that so easily.

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MaryGM21's picture


Tuesday, December 21, 2021 -- 12:32 PM

I enjoyed the opening

I enjoyed the opening conversation about beliefs. It is witty and wise and shows a progression from simple (or simplistic) to complex and, one could say, fraught, or at least potentially so. That exercise points to the sophistication of how we come to our beliefs, how, as we focus in on what matters most to us and mash it up with reality, we find that in order to live honorably according to our values, we will need to take action that potentially ruffles feathers at least, and could escalate into violent resistance at worst. It seems to me that humans have reached a stage of evolution where once we're clear about our values and that we must make choices on how to honor them as we live, we must also find a way to do so effectively and non-violently. Bringing up the power of listening to each other is a crucial light to shine upon this evolutionary change. Our "conflict tools" of the past need some "re-tooling" so that we can persuade as well as appeal to each person's knowing of "the Good", on a personal as well as communal, and far reaching levels. The need to be right needs to be released because it leads to unnecessary defensive actions that cause disenfranchisement and potentially, destruction. It's also important to argue the fine points and to agree to disagree and to compromise and to not compromise. Knowing when to do all of that is tricky and that is where integrity, self-knowledge and a desire to serve the common good as well as our own personal good, is the only way it will work.

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