Diversity and Disagreement

A popular question in Canada, among both scholars and pundits: cultural diversity and deep disagreement… good? bad? some of both? What to do in the face of deep disputes over big questions of religion, cultural practices, and moral values?

McGill’s Carlos Fraenkel took a stab at this over the weekend at the New York Times, in an opinion piece provocatively titled “In Praise of the Clash of Cultures.”

Here is the argument in a nutshell.

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People disagree over fundamental Truths about religion, morality, and metaphysics. Let’s call these capital-T truths. The philosopher John Rawls called them “comphrehensive doctrines”. Some philosophers (and more than a few scientists) would call them “mostly bullshit.” But you get the idea: these are the Gauguin, Kant, and Bladerunner questions.

We may be reasonably confident in our considered views about the Truth. Still, it’s plausible that we might have come to very different views if we’d been born and raised in a different time or place. At the very least we might admit, upon reflection, that these deep, subtle questions admit of several plausible answers. While I might be very certain about my answers, how could I justify imposing my truths on others, without at the very least some careful argument that tries to find shared evidence and some common terms of reference?

Frankel cites al-Ghazâlî on “taqlîd”, and suggests we need to recognize and interrogate conformity to received authority. Rawls would instead cite “the burdens of judgement” (the ideas are not really the same, but we’re roughly on the same page here).

Now, if you value the truth, but admit fallibility, then deep disagreements are good, Fraenkel suggests, because, in Millian fashion, they force us to argue our position against committed assaults on our core assumptions and inferences.

What we need, Frankel argues, is a culture that allows these kinds of encounters without them spiraling into mutual contempt and even violence. In high school, then, we should teach our children to respect other people and try to understand where they’re coming from, even as they hammer away at our cherished beliefs, and we at theirs.

To be sure, there’s mounting evidence that people don’t like these sorts of situations: most people don’t want to be forced to reflect critically on their most cherished convictions, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy arguing with people who fundamentally disagree with them.

Still, you might think that it’s good for us to engage across deep divisions, at least in some important contexts: jury rooms, the ballot box, when thinking about what’s best for our children, our planet—that sort of thing. So why not teach our children, explicitly and carefully, how to engage with other assumptions and arguments in civil, respectful, and constructive ways?

In short, why not make a point of teaching citizens, early and often, how to seek the truth and argue their positions, but without being assholes?

As we watch the train wreck that is (post-Citizens United) presidential campaigning to the south of us, there’s certainly something to this idea: truthfulness instead of truthiness, high-minded and informed civility instead of angry evidence-free sanctimony.

So far so good, then. Unfortunately this is where things start to come off the rails. Here are two problems with the argument that strike me as serious.

First, on the feasibility of fostering “a culture of debate” Fraenkel writes:

“The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way.”


I cannot make sense of this in a way that is positive for Fraenkel.

Is he saying that evolution is controversial (it isn’t), but that teaching critical thinking and the “virtues of debate” (“loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent”) is less so? That seems just wrong to me, even if evolution were remotely controversial.

It is after all, really, really hard to teach people consistently to think like a philosopher when pondering the things that matter most to them, and yet to do so while maintaining high-minded virtues of truth-loving, paired with both civility and a deep desire to understand other viewpoints. It’s certainly tough going here at universities, and I cannot imagine the task would be any easier in our high schools. So, while this curriculum proposal isn’t necessarily controversial in the sense of fostering substantive disagreement (“No! don’t teach my child to think clearly and respect others!” … although on this possibility more shortly), it may well stir controversy in the same way as tax dollars spent on any other aspirational-but-unrealistic curriculum initiative.

Or, more likely, is Fraenkel saying that evolution isn’t especially controversial, and that teaching these skills and virtues is even less so? As much as I’d like to believe this, we have the same problem here: not only is it hard to teach critical reasoning and civic and philosophical virtues (let alone to encourage their consistent application to our most cherished beliefs) but I suspect that the kinds of parents who don’t want their kids learning about evolution are also not going to be especially keen on classes in philosophical analysis and associated virtues! They have, after all, complained about weirder things: who’d have thought that some fundamentalists might have strong views on mathematical set theory?

Second, Fraenkel makes a strange case for his core claim that, “when we can transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” That’s nice work if you can get it, but here is how he follows up on this statement of hope:

“I now live in Montréal, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. When a couple of years ago I had to see a doctor, the receptionist was from China, in the waiting room I sat between a Hasidic Jew and a secular Québécois couple, the doctor who attended me was from Iran, and the nurse from Haiti. This was an impressive example of how Canadians, despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical differences, can work together to provide the basic goods and services that we all need irrespective of our way of life and worldview.”

Non sequitur, alas: the fact that major urban regions are often characterized by this sort of ethnic, cultural, and class mixing in public and commercial spaces doesn’t suggest that a culture of debate will somehow make this the norm!

Indeed, I’m assuming that Fraenkel thinks of Canada and the United States as not characterized by a widespread culture of debate, so the fact that major cities show us how to muddle along, in spite of deep differences, seems to suggest that we should be far more concerned with the civic and spatial forms of cities (a topic dear to my heart), not with getting people into more debates about their deepest convictions!

Rawls, it seems to me, was thinking along the right lines when he suggests that the point isn’t to get us arguing more about our deepest convictions, but to take from fallibility the lesson that capital-T Truth is a nonstarter for justifying political authority. However certain you are that my convictions are wrong-headed, you won’t convince me to support a constitution, or even a specific policy, if your argument in favour requires that I simply accept your beliefs as authoritative. Instead, and at the very least, you’ll need to give me reasons I can accept, from within my worldview.

Fraenkel is correct to dismiss two popular but philosophically suspect approaches to diversity and disagreement. Any superficial celebration of diversity for its own sake smacks of either effete cosmopolitan condescension (“I wouldn’t live anywhere without a good Moroccan restaurant! How can people stand it in the suburbs?or worse, the prairies!?”), or flirts with problematic moral relativism. The alternative approach, popular among some French commentators and legislators, but also evident in Quebec, tries to keep deep disagreements out of the public square. Fraenkel summarizes the approach nicely: “you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home”. But this too seems problematic, or at best ridiculously hopeful: when did hiding disagreements ever resolve them?

Fraenkel’s solution seems to me to miss the mark, however, for the reasons I’ve given, but in a way that Rawls’s approach thankfully does not. Rawls’s appeal to public reason has the great virtue not of hiding disagreements, but of providing plausible criteria for inclusion of beliefs and claims in public debates. Further, unlike Fraenkel’s proposal, Rawls’s approach doesn’t make heroic assumptions about widespread abilities and inclinations to argue widely and rigorously about our most cherished beliefs. Instead, we frame our arguments as citizens, asking how we might justify our public claims on others when we disagree about so much.