Of Disagreement, Creative Tension, and Monkeys

Dudley Field Malone with John T. Scopes, 1925.

the habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching. Antagonists seem no longer to listen to one another. - Saul Bellow, writing in 1987

Something we forget in these tempestuous times is that (if done right) there ought to be a measure of fellowship in disagreement: intellectual antagonists reasoning and counter-reasoning with one another over matters of the mind. Matters of opinion.

This fellowship should be one of truth-seeking and empathy: a desire to at least understand the opposing point-of-view, even if only to bolster and shore-up one’s own. Arguments and debates over politics, religion, economics, and philosophy ought to be exercises in mutual aid toward understanding and deriving new thought, even if this carries us no closer to agreement. We need the recognition that a common cause lay at the bottom of each such discussion: the finding of the best solution, the best answer to X, Y, or Z … coming as close as we can to an approximation of that fluid thing called truth, on which no-one has a monopoly.

A relative of mine, Dudley Field Malone, served as Clarence Darrow’s co-counsel at the famous — some might say infamous — “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. In the course of a speech during that trial, Malone uttered a sentence which has reverberated and been widely quoted ever since: “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”

A statesman and attorney for whom Malone had the greatest respect, William Jennings Bryan, served as lead counsel for the opposing side. Malone had served with Bryan during the Wilson administration when Bryan was Secretary of State and Malone an Under-Secretary. There existed absolutely no personal animosity between them. They simply disagreed on the narrow question of whether or not, in public schools, evolution ought to be offered as a theory alongside Fundamentalist interpretations of man’s beginnings.

That was it. The entire trial boiled down to a discussion of this one key point rather than the question of the “guilt” or innocence of teacher Scopes.

No personal insults or vilifications were ever hurled. No man’s character wound up impugned — not even that of the (nominal) defendant. The discussion concerned ideas, ideals, and intellectual freedom. (By the way, the jury found Scopes guilty — which he actually was — of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in any state-funded school. But he received a purely symbolic punishment: a mere $100 fine. No-one wanted to ruin his life. An appellate court later overturned the verdict, but only because of a technicality in the court proceedings and not for any reason related to the core debate. In the final analysis it had been the Butler Act on trial, not Scopes. Of course, these days it is Genesis which is banned. We’re always banning something.)

Harold Bloom, in his magisterial The Closing of the American Mind, comments that Plato and Aristotle “at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good … were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.”

Alas, neither Plato nor Aristotle would thrive in today’s Academy, at least not in the Liberal Arts where open and free debate should be the norm but isn’t. You know: Political Correctness and all that.

An example: English Majors at Yale recently launched a movement to ban the study of great writers who happen to be white and male (Shakespeare, Eliot, Milton, etc.). Their petition insists that the forced reading of such writers “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings.” (Like I said: We’re always banning something. I’d argue that if you take white male writers out of English Literature, you leave a pretty big hole. But what do I know?) In other words, forget the Academy, at least as regards the Liberal Arts. That’s over. Per Malone: No disagreement/no diversity of thought =no learning.

Of course the world has a distinct shortage of Platos and Aristotles, so I am shooting for a rather high ideal here: the type of thing which is never an easy target to hit. Still, it can and usually is achieved in some situations.

Thankfully, the sciences remain open both inside and outside the Academy: Communities of researchers eager to share information in order to prove or disprove theories — all frequently “arguing” but also using their arguments as shared tools to derive and prove the one correct answer, the one key solution, the one final truth upon which they can all agree.

Perhaps it helps that in the sciences truth is a far more tangible thing than it is in philosophy or politics. A theory or invention either eventually proves itself definitively correct and practicable, or it doesn’t. After all, the Salk Vaccine really does prevent polio. And fiber-optic cables really do get the job done. End of story.

The process is called collaboration. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

I’ve routinely seen, and insisted upon, collaborative intellectual positivism in my business dealings. I like it when colleagues come to the conference table with differing ideas of how to solve a problem. Together we digest, discuss, and debate our varied ideas, sometimes revising them, sometimes discarding them, and sometimes combining them — all toward devising action steps aimed at achieving that most popular of common goals: maximum profit. A shared ambition if there ever was one. (Dare I quote Gordon Gekko? “Greed clarifies.”)

Let me go a step further and say lack of initial disagreement in such discussions tends to make me nervous. It makes me wonder whether I and my colleagues have become complacent. That we’re not applying enough rigor to our analyses: a step our competitors might not at the same time be skipping.

I need creative tension and respectful disagreement. I’m insecure without it. But it must be thoughtful. It must be open. And it must be positive. If only we could have that everywhere.