Is Communication Compatible with Disagreement: Not without Beer and Capitulation

Heineken’s new ad couples up three pairs of strangers who disagree over feminism, climate change, and transgenderism. After the pairs construct a bar together they are given a dilemma: leave or stay for a drink to discuss their differences. So far, the ad tells us something trivially true: getting on with people is compatible with disagreeing with them. We agree! It is not entirely clear that Heineken does. The add closes with the pairs sitting down for a chat and a cold one. However, the promised ‘discussion’ never materializes. Instead, comments made earlier by one of each pair are replayed to them and, upon drinking beer, one side capitulates – and I don’t have to tell you which one. The idea, I suppose, is that after forming a relationship one will want to soften one’s view in order to preserve the relationship.

There is a stronger way to interpret the message of the ad, one that suggests that only capitulation can preserve communication. If no one is prepared to stand down, then no one can talk to each other. Notice, in the ad, there is a pro-team (the feminist, the one who accepts climate change, and the transgender person) and an anti-team (the anti-feminist, the climate change denier, and the anti-transgender person). The party whose negative comments are recorded is the anti-team and it is those comments that are replayed to the pro-team. This elicits some guilt in the anti-team who decide some mea culpa is in order, stay for a drink and, at least in the case of the anti-transgender person and anti-feminist, reverse course.

Now, this is not a time for a lengthy defense of any of the given positions. But it is a time to notice the asinine idea of the strong interpretation of the ad: “We on the left refuse to be friends with anyone who disagrees with us. If you want to avoid our utter rejection, you must capitulate to our views. It matters not one whit which side is right–what is true or false, how good one’s arguments are, what evidence one might possess, or any of that other old fashioned rational stuff–it only matters that you agree with us. If you don’t, get out!”

Perhaps the ad gives you the glows. You side with the winners. Just ask yourself this: what if the shoe was on the other foot? Imagine that the ad was made by some conservative type and the other team capitulates over a nice cup of tea. Wouldn’t you jump up and shout, “but you never listened; you didn’t present the other side’s view – they have reasons for what they think!”

Here is the antithesis: getting on with people is compatible with disagreement. It is this way largely because in a free society we can actually discuss differences without capitulating and our right to do so is protected by the law. The alternative is to ban free discussion and make it the law that one side is the winner – if we like this idea we should vote Heineken whose election slogan is – “if you don’t agree with us, then you don’t get any beer.”

More importantly, the idea that communication is agreement-dependent is false. What communication depends upon is a set of objective truths that are intersubjectively available.  Donald Davidson said something to this effect. He wrote:

“To understand the speech of another, I must be able to think of the same things she does; I must share her world. I don’t have to agree with her in all matters, but in order to disagree we must entertain the same propositions, with the same subject matter, and the same concept of truth. Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world.” (Davidson, “Rational Animals”)

According to Davidson, communication is dependent upon two features of the world and the people in it. First, communication is dependent on objective truths, truths that are independent of our agreement. If there are no such things then there is no such thing as disagreement. Disagreement presupposes that one party has got something wrong, but if there are no objective truths, then no one can get anything wrong. Second, communication is concept dependent. If you and I talk about some issue or other we must be able to conceptualize the same objective world (and the set of truths about that world) and draw conclusions together even if those conclusions differ.

Notice the strap-line of the ad: “Open your mind, open your world.” The trouble is: communication depends on there being only one world. If we each have our own world, then there would be no common ground – nothing to talk about. If there is nothing to talk about, then there is no communication.

I must admit, I find disagreement difficult. I often avoid conflict with people. However, avoiding conflict with others is not the necessary condition for communication. This is false. Indeed, as Davidson suggests, the contrary might even be true: if there is no disagreement, then communication would not be possible.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.