The Right to Not Be Disagreed With

Today's "Pastor's Note" is a guest post, by Fred Larsen, one of our members. Fred wrote the following for no one but himself, for the sole purpose of getting his own thinking straight on this subject. However, he let its existence slip out; I read it; I thought its quality and clarity demanded a wider audience; Fred relented; and now I share it with you. I'm thankful for the many gifts that God has brought to our church, including the gifts of thinkers, and writers. This is longer than what is normally posted here, but it will be worth your while to find a few minutes, a comfortable chair, and, well, an open mind:

In considering the following commentary, be mindful that the issue is about demanding the right to not be disagreed with. At base it’s a power play likely based on insecurity or a sense of vulnerability. Given that dynamic its almost certainly inadvisable to point that out, which the perpetrator has already assumed you won‘t do. It's a form of bullying.

Most have seen the dynamic in play in the checkout line when a child spies a candy bar or toy they want and express their demand for it. If the parent disagrees, the child has only two responses. In one case the child agrees to be disagreed with and accepts the denial. In the other case, the child demands the right to not be disagreed with and a confrontation ensues. At that point, the issue is no longer about the candy or toy. It’s about the epiphany that the demand to not be disagreed with has been denied. 

One of the influences in play is the relative scope of their world view. At some level, the confrontation is not about being naughty or whiny, but more likely about that of which their world consists. The larger the world concept/context/construct, it’s likely less value will be attached to being disagreed with. The relative value of the thing itself is not changed in real terms, but it is usually changed in relationship to all other things as the child matures.

For any age, a demand to not be disagreed with on any issue is a reliable indicator of the value of the issue in play relative to all else of which that person’s life and perspective consists. It can be said, perhaps, that the issue around which disagreement is forbidden and the relative value granted to it is a reliable indicator of the size, scope, and breadth of that person’s life. It never speaks to a fixed value of the thing that can be applied to all times and places. It may be seen that the issue upon which the person is entrenched is one upon which they depend for definition of their identity, reputation, self image, public persona, etc. Truth, reason, logic, cogent argument, etc. will usually be found in inverse proportions to strategies for protecting these types of personal needs when they are present.   

This behavior can be rightly described as one simply wanting their own way. While that is accurate and is a viable description of the behavior, that construction focuses solely on the individual that wants their own way. By introducing the idea of agreement and disagreement, both of which introduce others into the equation, the implications of the behavior and its impact on others is drawn out. While contemporary attention often focuses primarily or even exclusively on the perpetrator, this is not a solitary endeavor. It can’t be since the issuance of a demand assumes the presence of someone to respond to the demand. People don’t issue demands if the context of an issue or challenge involves only them.  At some level this will always impact others, sometimes profoundly so, not to mention the unspoken expectations of others that are inherent in a demand to not be disagreed with.

Another more sinister motivation is control. Some may not know that is their motivation yet at the same time be unwilling to tolerate not being in control. Others may suggest that the issue on the table is “in your best interest” or “for your own good”. That will be an interesting proposition if you have not had the opportunity to at least consider whether that is true. Even if turns out to be true, one ought to be able to agree to that for their own reasons instead of having it externally imposed.  H. L. Mencken wrote, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front (or false-face) for the urge to rule it." While he was not addressing this issue, I believe the underlying premise of his sentiment has application.

One may see a constituency element in play. Often, one can deduce their place in the constituency matrix of an organization, community, club, family, etc. by noting from where and from whom these kinds of demands come. They likely won’t show up absent a preceding (probably sub-conscious) conclusion that the perpetrator believes they have the requisite constituency gravitas to make the demand stick. Folks don’t do this if they see a likely potential cost related to the action that would make it personally unaffordable. Sadly, if that cost is incurred by the time it is appreciated its often too late to reverse the process. An apt expression of grace is found in that individual who could make the demand and make it stick, yet does not do so through appreciation and respect for the innate personal sovereignty of subordinates, peers, relatives, or fellows. 

Assumptions, definitions, context, objective facts, and authority represent the DNA of any point of view. To take an intractable stand on anything without knowing or examining those underlying elements will establish a position based at some level on personal preference. Even if you are right, your ‘rightness" is nothing more than another iteration of personal preference unless you know (even if only in your own mind) why you are right. I would submit one outcome of knowing why you think as you do will be a reduction of potential for conflict or confrontation. To know something (even if not exhaustively) incorporates less personal need to defend than does the idea of preferring something. Preference is often connected to issues of tradition, personal identity, personal insecurity, constituency realities, etc. Knowing, to the extent it is based on conclusions supported by objective data, reason, logic, authority, etc., is based on information external to self, thus presumably reducing one's sense of personal vulnerability. Both approaches will be manifested in shades of gray, but generally knowing something will provide more personal options for response that will preferring something. I would submit the need to not be disagreed with will more likely be found in one who holds a position based on preference rather than reason. Reason and logic are almost certainly anathema to such a person.

I would offer the view that some who engage in this dynamic do so simply because they are unable or unwilling to explain or defend their demands or point of view. Others simply don’t have the courage to stand alone if no one stands with them. The perceived power to exercise the demand is where one finds their identity.  I submit its reasonable to assume such a demand issues from a personal sense of vulnerability or insecurity coupled with an unwillingness or inability to mount a cogent defense or explanation why they think as they do. At the same time they cannot abide being put to the test, even by tacit disagreement. Upon reflection, one can perhaps appreciate the incessant, anxious vulnerability that attends the life of such a person.

I submit that at the root of the “close minded” argument one will likely find a demand for the right to not be disagreed with. Many propositions advanced in closed/open minded scenarios depend on personal preferences. Few understand or want to acknowledge that or are vaguely uncomfortable demanding that all around them adhere to their personal preferences. Yet they cannot abide being disagreed with. The open minded, close minded gambit is the MO of choice to mask the irrational demand to be extended the right to not be disagreed with.

We live in a relativistic culture. Many people have no firm categories to organize their thinking. Many live in or with the tyranny of the perpetually open mind. Therein one finds no authority, boundaries, exceptions, standards, objections, etc. Ultimately we all claim some sort of authority by which we resist if sufficiently pressured by life or challenges. To not seek/define that authority or personal boundary beforehand possibly reveals an assumption we are immune to ever having to appeal to it. Or we perhaps assume no one would presume to put us in such a position. Or, we perhaps assume we possess sufficient self-referent, self-endowed authority to deal with whatever comes.

Not having categories or structure to our thinking often leads to the “open minded” gambit. Folks claiming to be open minded (or conversely, accusing another of being close minded) are frequently encountered in discussion of social, moral, philosophical, or metaphysical ideas. Its application may have no relationship to one’s willingness to consider an idea or argument. Rather, the usage often carries a sense that if one’s opposite won’t agree with something they are, by definition, close minded. Attaching the label purportedly explains why they won’t/don’t agree with the position presented. This approach implies that close-mindedness is the only barrier to agreement, thus open-mindedness is the only avenue to agreement. It handily lays accountability for the refusal to agree at the feet of the other with no reference at all to the evidence or rationale for the proposition being advanced.

If I have considered your argument and its supporting evidence and found it unconvincing, I am open minded, but remain unconvinced. If I don’t accept your position, the problem may lie with the logic, quality, and content of your argument, not my refusal to accept it. Now, it is entirely possible that in refusing to contemplate viable evidence, I am being close minded, but then show that instead of depending on the fact that I won’t agree as the basis for the application of the label.

If you rely only on the unexamined charge that I am close minded, it is possibly reliable evidence you do not have evidence or don’t know how or choose not to present evidence to support your position. Using that strategy, the success of your argument depends solely on the willingness of your opposite to accept the labels you apply to them. If they agree with your assessment that they are close minded, you have won. If they do not agree, you have lost.

Lost on most who advance the “close minded” argument is that the same charge can be laid at their feet when they refuse to see an issue in ways other than how they have chosen to advance it. If they haven’t previously encountered alternative views, one can generously observe they are insufficiently informed. Once informed, however, refusal to contemplate that of which they were previously unaware is a manifestation of their close mindedness (employing their definition of close mindedness). A possibly interesting diversion at this juncture would be to examine whether they are sufficiently open minded to consider an alternative to their definition of close mindedness.


©2017 Frederic Larsen