Alex’s dapper coif descends from tight, crisp turns around his ears, down his jaw, and into a stellar, Viking-esque beard.
I envy the power and grace of that beard, which is why it inspired our “secret” handshake: fist bump, beard-stroke, steady eye-brow raise of gentlemanly intrigue…
Alex is a yoga friend. The last few times that we’ve seen each other (and exchanged our secret handshake), it’s been at our local coffee house.
There, Alex has been working on his “special project.”
His Macbook, with a Darth Vader sticker gripping the cover’s Apple logo, spins toward me. Alex scrolls a Word document faster than I can read, showcasing text in kaleidoscopic colors.
“We’re up to 44 pages,” he says with a smile.
It’s not a novel that Alex is working on…
…it’s a correspondence. A single conversation. With one person. That has been going on for months.
This burly text is an ever-expanding artifact of an ongoing debate with a friend-of-a-friend whom he only met once last December. They had gotten talking politics over the holidays. Now, it’s taken the shape of this thoroughly researched, thoroughly cited and annotated email chain.
But the most remarkable part of the correspondence is how civil it is.
One participant is a junior high school teacher. The other is a lifelong military man. Their opinions, beliefs and perspectives on social issues differ in just about every way.
Each takes his turn – sometimes days, a week, or longer – to write his response to the other.
The color coding is purely practical: it helps each guy keep track of what aspect of the debate is occurring, and where. The color code also indicates an estimation of timeline: the initial debate began red and green, before spinning sub-debates and tangents in new colors.
They’ve debated religion, philosophy and scientific theory. Everything from evolution to abortion and marriage equality.
When one cites scripture from the Bible in support of his views, the other researches and cites seeming contradictions from the same holy book to support his counter-points.
Alex says that the email has become a part time job.
And neither guy seems willing, or able, to acquiesce to the other.
What grabs me most about this epic dialogue between two people at opposite ends of the political spectrum is the civility, patience and grace that they’ve consistently show one another.
They’ve “agreed to disagree.”
This isn’t what usually happens in debates about politics, religion and social issues.
This isn’t the kind of result that we might refer to when we say, “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Usually, the “agree to disagree” idiom is a conversation-ender. It’s used to pacify debates and disagreements – as if, a biological or psychological necessity to create some agreement between humans in an otherwise disagreeable dialogue. “Let’s agree to disagree” is usually spoken as the only way to remedy differences, and acknowledge the ideological standstill, the impasse.
“You don’t agree with me? Well, I don’t agree with you. Neither will come to accept the other’s point of view. So, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
“Agreeing to disagree” is usually a gesture of surrender. It comes when we’ve agreed to give up rectifying our differences of opinion.
But Alex and his debate peer have agreed to disagree in an entirely different way.
“Agreeing to disagree” is the foundation of their dialogue. It’s the moral compass which guides the engagement.
“Agreeing to disagree” has become the code by which each party has agreed to govern himself.
I’m pretty sure they both know they will not persuade the other to a complete reversal of his political, religious and moral perspectives. And yet, each guy is taking time – hours, weeks, and months – to state his perspective, provide supporting evidence that informs his opinion, before challenging the opinions of the other.
So why are they doing it?
Why does this conversation last, and last, and last? I don’t think either has a goal to prove the other guy wrong. The point is not to win. To trump the other. To ego-boost, or back-pat.
The point is to disagree…
…in a way that is entirely, 100% agreeable.
Alex and his peer are agreeing to disagree in the way disagreement is supposed to be done, especially in the world of politics and social issues: with a willingness, a humility and grace that states, “I may be wrong, but here’s how I feel anyway. Now you tell me your side. Maybe we can find a better way forward, together.”
Agreeing to disagree in this way is difficult. Because it’s prudent and constructive.
Which is why it’s so uncommon, and nearly unheard of in modern political debate and discussion.
Agreeing to disagree requires patience, disassociation from ego-identity and a willingness to take ownership of one’s own ideas and beliefs with deep vulnerability.
Most politicians don’t get elected on being reasonable, because reasonability appears flimsy and noncommittal. Most politicians get elected on boiling down nuance and complexity into “Pro” or “Anti.” Which turns every conversation, dialogue or debate into a brutal, tribal, war-like “Us” versus “Them.” (And we wonder why fear and anger govern our political landscape in 2017!)
If you ask me, dear reader, the tragedy of modern politics isn’t partisanship and disagreement.
The tragedy of modern politics is the manner of how, and to what effect, people disagree.
Look around. Turn on the news. Scan your Facebook feed. The tragedy is not disagreement, but that people cannot agree on how to disagree.
At least there are still some people who can show us that, yes, it is possible to agree on how to disagree.
Just look to this junior high school teacher, the military man, and their colorful, sprawling exchange.