In an excellent recent article, Mollie Hemingway wrote, “We are slowly forgetting how to dislike something without seeking its utter destruction.” I would only replace “slowly” with “quickly”—very quickly. This makes me think about disagreement—what it is, what it means, what it is for. So let’s explore.

Many years ago, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that “The view dies hard that Babel was the occasion of a curse being laid upon mankind from which it is the business of philosophers to deliver us, and a disposition remains to impose a single character upon significant human speech.” By “Babel” here Oakeshott does not mean the diversity of languages but the diversity of beliefs and positions; his statement is a kind of challenge to philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.

Bernard Williams likewise appreciated the value of disagreement: “Disagreement does not necessarily have to be overcome. It may remain an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others, and also be seen as something that is merely to be expected in the light of the best explanations we have of how such disagreement arises.” The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs. Similarly, in the American legal culture we have long seen defense attorneys serving a similar role: it is good for society, and for justice considered generally that even seemingly indefensible clients or ideas be defended. And sometimes, of course, what seems indefensible proves to be justified after all. But perhaps that’s not a value held in high regard any more—at least, in relation to some issues.

To be sure, toleration, both legally and socially, has always had limits. Consider John Milton’s “Areopagitica,” perhaps the most stirring celebration of freedom of the press ever composed. Hear, my friends, these noble words: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” But then just a few lines later: “I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.” Milton reassures us that when he advocates freedom of speech he certainly doesn’t mean to include Catholics, whose words should be forcibly snuffed out.

So no society tolerates every imaginable form of speech; there are always boundaries. What’s disorienting about American society today is how quickly the boundaries are shifting. Beliefs that were almost universal less than 20 years ago—and are held by around 40 percent of the American people now—are deemed utterly beyond the pale. It’s hard not to suspect that some of the people most devoted to policing those boundaries are pouncing prosecutorially on views that they themselves held not that long ago. (The convert’s zeal.) And social media provide the chief impetus for both changing one’s own views and policing those whose views are different. In this environment, it’s hard to see who will resist what Oakeshott calls the “disposition … to impose a single character upon significant human speech.”

Maybe the Oakeshott/Williams view of philosophy as an opening-up rather than a closing-down of options can assist. In this fascinating conversation on the value of political disagreement, Gary Gutting and Jerry Gaus end up doing what people always do in these conversations: they advocate open disagreement but then quickly pause to say that “toleration has limits.” But, being philosophers, they go on to ask how those limits should be determined. Gaus: “The critical question is not whether I judge a person to be radically misguided, or judge her way of life to be morally repugnant, but whether she is a danger to the life and liberty of others.”

But that doesn’t help us very much unless we know what “danger” is, and its sibling “harm,” and no concepts have undergone more radical alteration in the recent shifting of social opinion than these. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”—but that was in a simpler time. In a culture devoted to a minutely particular screening of language for microaggressions, the injury inflicted by opinions becomes the most talked-about form of harm. There are no socially useful gadflies in Microaggression World—unless, of course, you think it’s okay for some ideas to be challenged but not your favorite ones. And no one would ever be so inconsistent, would they?

People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.

Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.

How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.


Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.