by Chaitanya Joshi & Sushruth Ravish.
In present times of partisan divide, each one of us would have experienced at some point or the other, an impasse in a conversation. This is what the Greeks called aporia – a point beyond which no further dialogue seems to be possible. Each person points the finger at the other and says “You are completely missing the point” and silence (often an awkward one) follows. We want to analyze this moment a little more and through that, hope to shed light on how and why it is reached, if not what can be done to avoid it.
We believe there are two ways in which such an aporia is often reached, firstly, when people “agree to disagree”. Let us call this bilateral disengagement (or BD for short). When BD occurs, there is disagreement but there is also recognition of the legitimacy of the other’s position and treating it at par with your own arguments. In some sense it is tolerance. In agreeing to disagree, one is being rational, aware, and respectful about the limits of rationality, for one is exclusively stalling one particular mode of argumentation where the limits of her rationality are reached. Moreover, by agreeing to disagree, one is cognizant about the humanness of the other, for here, one allows the other the space to rephrase, reformulate, and re-express her argument. It also appears that BD symbolizes what philosophers would call epistemic humility, what you could simply call an acknowledgment of the possibility of being wrong – A humble acceptance of one’s limited means of arriving at the truth. By agreeing to disagree, one is merely requesting the other to change the course of argumentation, so that one is able to see that which seems to currently evade her but not to leave the quest for truth.
In contrast, the second way is what we call “unilateral withdrawal”. Each participant is convinced that her proposition is closer to the truth, is normatively justified or a more accurate description of the state of affairs. However, when they reach aporia, along with an inability to convince the other person, there is a de-recognition of the other’s position. One or more interlocutors might withdraw from the debate and say they no longer want to be in the conversation, or even brazenly claim that even if it is irrational they don’t mind. It seems to me that philosophy has no further tools to coerce such individual(s) as long as we are in the realm of beliefs.
The justification for such an unexpected unilateral withdrawal comes from the claim that one or more values of the concerned participant in a conversation are violated (for instance self-respect, patriotism, or even pride) leading to her unilateral withdrawal from the conversation. In this case, it would seem that there is no further way to engage with this person. However, when one declares unilateral withdrawal in such a manner by opting out of the discussion, then, we argue, that one is already robbing other participants in a conversation of any chance of reconsideration. That is to say that, the primacy of values and a unilateral withdrawal flowing from such a notion of values comes at the cost of others’ values. For unlike in agreeing to disagree, one is not merely stalling the specific mode of argumentation here, rather one is overthrowing the very fabric of argumentation, pushing all background theorization in vain. Hence, unlike within an act of agreeing to disagree, where the quest for truth is the primary aim, in unilateral withdrawal, the primary concern is about personal and subjective beliefs and often the self-respect of participants. Here, we would also like to bring to the attention of the reader that the belief that her self-respect has been violated is held by the individual and need not be shared by others. While this is certainly her prerogative, there is also the chance that she might be wrong. In other words, what the individual feels is a violation of her self-respect might simply be a hasty reaction taken in a huff, arising from the discomfort of seeing one’s standpoint being indefensible. Therefore, although nobody would want to deny the right of the individual or always suspect the individual’s judgment, not registering the possibility of irrational behavior either seems naïve or arrogant.
In both of these cases, it seems that there are divergent normative commitments upheld by various participants that lead them either to uphold the principle of “agreeing to disagree” or the principle of “unilateral withdrawal”. In other words, for us, both of these seem to be tools to uphold and convey the demarcation between the realm of rationality and the realm of non-rational values. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that one is well within one’s epistemic freedom to draw that boundary anywhere and at any time during the conversation. However, what matters is which of these two possible recourses an individual agent takes in order to draw that boundary. When an agent opts for unilateral withdrawal, in our opinion, an agent is opting for the realm of values, specifically by valuing self-respect. One might, however, point out that even choosing the rational realm, by choosing the option of agreeing to disagree is also a value-laden choice. But we contest that. We believe that choosing unilateral withdrawal from the conversation is a choice to safeguard the feeling of self-respect which is difficult to distinguish from one’s false pride, whereas choosing bilateral disengagement is merely a choice of the cognitive domain of reason wherein there is no possible confusion. Interestingly, in both cases, the end result is the end of the conversation but in agreeing to disagree there is an implicit modesty in acknowledging the limits of one’s own rational arguments whereas in a unilateral withdrawal, there is either modest self-respect or an arrogant ego lurking behind. Out of these two possible modes of halting the conversation, agreeing to disagree, we argue, is better. It might not assure the absence of false pride, but it assures the existence of both the self-respect of participants as well as the rational mode of carrying out the conversation.
Lastly, there is another risk associated with unilateral withdrawal that we want to highlight, and that is the risk of getting caught in an echo chamber. In our times, the space of engaging across ideological divides is constantly shrinking and the more polarized our opinions get, the more difficult it becomes to co-exist in a society harmoniously. In agreeing to disagree one is not shutting the door on a change of opinion. It is leaving open the possibility of a future argument bringing about a transformation. Further, agreeing to disagree is inclusive by nature. Consider how, in our everyday use of it, the phrase is always preceded by “let us”. This seems to be a consensual, respectful proposal to cease the discussion for some time until one of the interlocutors has an argument hitherto not submitted. Unilateral withdrawal makes no such attempt to include the other. We are well aware of debates where one side hijacks the debate or makes the conversation so vitiated that withdrawing might be the only recourse to the other side. However, the real reason might be a failure to arrive at the grounds of agreement rather than hurt pride. Recognition of the other as an ethical prerequisite for a debate is not contested here.
The right way to secure and preserve values like self-respect is not to unilaterally withdraw from the discussion when one feels that one’s self-respect is being compromised, but to continue the discussion in different modes of argumentation in the quest for truth. This is certainly not a compromise of one’s dignity; this is rather, respecting the discourse. Even if we believe that it isn’t the ego but self-respect that is being compromised in a given discussion, the best way still is to block that mode of argumentation by agreeing to disagree and continuing the discussion through a different mode of argumentation.