Mon | Dec 18, 2017

Tony Deyal | Agree to disagree

Published:Saturday | November 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

"Madam, your conduct is reprehensible." This was said many, many years ago in a noisy bar in the city one evening by a clearly inebriated elderly gentleman who was thoroughly annoyed at the behaviour of a woman who was hurling obscenities faster and with more force than Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott could achieve with his javelin, except that she did not need a pointed instrument, or even a hammer to go with her sharp tongue, which was reinforced by a loud voice and threats of violence.

This allowed her to express rage, disgust and contempt simultaneously in language that was comprehensible and yet objectionable and in a way that a policeman would find arresting or even 'apprehensible'. The old man was smart enough to keep quiet, finish his drink and then make a hasty but still dignified exit, perhaps knowing that one should never argue with fools because they will bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience. In fact, when you're tempted to fight fire with fire, you should remember that the fire department uses water or foam.

In those days, the man who walked away from a quarrel was a rarity, especially in a rum shop. The drinkers shouted, cursed, threatened and sometimes even fought. It did not matter what the subject was. Arguments got extremely heated over the most philosophical or mundane matters - religion, politics, women, who had the better songbird and even who should pay for the next round.

However, these were not long-lasting disputes, and few ever came to blows without one of the combatants begging his friends, "Hold me back, hold me back." This way, honour was satisfied and nobody got so badly hurt that he did not live to drink and fight another day.

 

Times changed

 

Now, the times have changed. A few years ago, a man in Trinidad scolded his neighbour's young child for destroying some duck eggs near his fence. That evening, the man was shot dead. Up to now, the police have not arrested his killer. When I was growing up, my neighbours knew they could beat me if they caught me doing something wrong and, if it was serious enough, to let my father know what I had done so that he could beat me, too. Teachers were like God, and if a teacher beat you, regardless of how severely, you were stupid to complain to your parents.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was that I learnt to debate and was the captain of the school's debating team. It was ironic that it was a school in which the principal, a member of a Roman Catholic order called the Presentation Brothers, was notorious for beating students with his fist, belt or cane. However, I did not appreciate the contradiction at that time. I enjoyed the intellectual cut and thrust of debating and the joy of public speaking. It was difficult for all of us to learn to call the team we were doing battle with our 'Honourable Opponents' or to avoid 'He say' and use 'We have heard' or 'It has been said'.

But we eventually did and learnt other valuable skills. My own strength was what is called reductio ad absurdum, or reduce to absurdity the points my opponents were trying to make. It still gets me in trouble when overdone, but it kept me in later life from pulling a knife or a gun when angry, or trying to outshout anyone. An even more delicious irony is that recently, the national debate champions of the US, Harvard University, lost to a team of New York Prison inmates.

The ability to keep calm, to look for holes in arguments, to appreciate another's point of view, are no longer valued in a world that is constantly becoming more hostile, less patient and increasingly polarised. One of my old friends at breakfast recently called me a four-letter word because he did not agree with something I said. I let it pass.

 

Dying Art of Disagreement

 

Last week, The New York Times ran an article on 'The Dying Art of Disagreement' by Bret Stevens. He pointed out that the words 'I agree', regardless of what we agree to, may be the basis of every community, and 'I disagree' are words that "define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energise our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere". Mr Stevens cited Galileo, Darwin, Mandela and Rosa Parks as being in the ranks of those who disagree.

What he sees as the problem is that increasingly, we are all failing at our task. What Mr Stevens values is the ability and willingness to listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind. He insists, "The crucial prerequisite of intelligent disagreement - namely: shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak - is absent."

I hear more than ever people saying, "Well, we agree to disagree," when what they mean is "You seem to have your head permanently stuck up your butt, but I'm done talking about it now."

Worse, we used to say that one can disagree without being disagreeable. This is no longer true or possible. I have learnt that in the Caribbean, whether it is race or tribe, the gulf of disagreement is widening and there is no middle room for discourse and debate. In Jamaica, there is a programme called PALS, for Peace and Love in Society, trying to teach the young that violence should not be a first resort or even a last one for solving issues and relationship problems.

Yet, anger followed by violence seems to be the preferred response in both Jamaica and Trinidad. Coming away from the macro problem for a moment, I can safely, but not with total safety, say that I play the most dangerous sport. I sometimes disagree with my wife. I have also learnt not to disagree with children. A little girl had heard the story about Jonah and the whale in Sunday school and insisted it was true. Her teacher said that a whale's throat is too small for that. The little girl said, "When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah." The teacher replied, "What if Jonah went to hell?" The little girl replied, "Then you ask him."

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying, "It's OK if you disagree with me. I can't force you to be right."