Can we ever agree to agree?

Alvin Pang
Jan 12th, 2015

I enjoy a good spar from time to time, but I dislike direct confrontations. I find them wasteful. If I'd wanted the adrenaline boost I'd get a cup of coffee. All the more so for core introverts like myself, who have learnt how to be sociable and cultivate a public life, yet remain most vital in solitude or small nurturing clusters. It takes energy we can better spend elsewhere, we feel. Life's too short.

It is attractive, even preferred, to flock to those more like-minded to us: there are real (and not trivial) cognitive, emotional and other costs involved in engaging with difference, and these ought not to be downplayed.

Yet we have to share this life with others who consider themselves to have equal and valid world-views (including the view that their perspective is the only right one); who hold strong, committed (and in their minds reasonable, just, thoughtful and courageous) positions different from or even opposed to ours. And yes, we also have to factor in human frailties and the possibility of active malice.

It is not always possible or viable to live and let live. The city, the planet is too small. There is much at stake that affects all of us, and much more still that affects those who do not have the luxury of deciding for themselves. I am, as many of us are, in a position of relative privilege, being from a segment of humanity that happens to have accorded itself the luxury of deciding what to take seriously and what to consider good sport or fair play. We can shrug and look away, play with our own mates and shake our heads at the barbarians on the other side of the fences we erect, even as they shake their heads at us.

But how then do we do this? How do we overcome our natural inclination to huddle and circle the wagons, and instead reach out to others in fruitful ways that honour our differences? The cliché is that we agree to disagree: but this is often taken as an excuse to disengage and return to our echo chambers. When we really need to sort stuff out, how can we agree to agree?

I am not convinced that it is simply a matter of having enough power or a bigger megaphone. Even if we acquired these, we would change nothing should we apply the same frames of mind that have left us in gridlock.

Instead, we probably have to begin with the way in which we perceive differences and our own place in the scheme of things: how the ways we ourselves think and behave affect the whole, including possible unintended consequences. If we live on this planet, if we use this language, if we eat food produced in this day and age and partake of the era's fruits, we are already culpable. It is a lot to take in. It is too much to take in. We reach for another coffee, another hour of distraction.

But let us try to imagine a different way to approach this; different forms of engagement, conversation, action, change. And let's begin with profound humility. Because the issue is too big. We really don't know what the right thing to do is: not for ourselves; not for everyone else; not both at once. We really don't. And those who do claim to know are missing the point. Because it isn't enough to act unilaterally, nor just for here, nor just for now, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to do otherwise.

Suggestions are welcome.

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Alvin Pang
Singapore
Last blog date: Jan 12th, 2015

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