How Should We Disagree With One Another?

By Professor Andy Overman

Prior to Thanksgiving a pamphlet was distributed that mocked and attacked President Rosenberg on a very personal level. This pamphlet also contained a syllabus from a course taught by fellow faculty member with the sole purpose of mocking that faculty member. I was surprised to see this kind of personal attack and language in our community. This is not a mode of argument and approach to difference I associate with Macalester. No one among us deserves this kind of mean spirited disrespect. On the contrary, every Macalester community member is first of all deserving of respect – in our language and our actions. Also, at the same time, The Mac Weekly ran a letter “from the Mac community” which asked President Rosenberg to “reinstate the need-blind admissions policy or tender your resignation.” These two pieces prompted me to wonder how we should engage in disagreement with one another in our community.From the time I have known of Macalester, and the fourteen years I have taught here, our campus has been known for its activism, passionate student body, and progressive faculty. This is part of what has made us a great place. These are Macalester traditions deeply woven into our fabric. But just as deeply woven into our historical and intellectual fabric is respect for others. Preserving and promoting another’s humanity has been a paramount value for us as a scholarly community. It has been so for a very long time. We should never allow ourselves to lose sight of this fundamental value.

Disagreeing passionately and substantially with someone without attacking them personally is an obtainable and crucial goal for our or any community. Another person’s humanity can be honored amid even substantial disagreement.

We can and do differ passionately on issues at Macalester. In the main this is a great strength. When these differences are manifested in personal attacks and vitriol this becomes a weakness that hurts us all. An activist attacks issues, not people. No single person should be devalued because of the differences we have. Of course this is not always an easy thing. When we are passionate we often say things that hurt others. But in the end tearing down another person does not strengthen anyone’s argument and mostly devalues what one hopes to advance.

A number of issues loom large at Mac right now: affirmative action, how we allocate our resources, our priorities for the foreseeable future, how we shall govern ourselves, and more. There is rightly debate and tension about these issues. I am also aware that students don’t always feel respected by faculty or staff. In no way am I suggesting that only students demonstrate an occasional lack of respect. Lack of respect in the classroom or elsewhere by faculty or staff toward students is utterly inappropriate to our institution and a violation of the Macalester traditions of respect we have historically honored.

How might we move forward in our debates as a community whether about resources, race, the Middle East, and other emotional and provocative issues?

First, openness and transparency are vital. We are an open community. Let us find venues where we can talk about our decisions and plans face to face.
Initiatives, or strategies formed in a corner, apart from the community, justifiably foster distrust and diminish those who are marginalized. Lack of openness stops debate while transparency and candor builds trust across the community.

Second, let us acknowledge decisions made by the community. Here I would respectfully disagree with the signatories of the letter in the Mac Weekly. The Mac community went through an arduous process and debate concerning need-blind admissions. In this case an open discussion took place across our campus. Not everyone’s position prevailed. Being heard and having things go one’s way are not the same. This was a tough decision reached by our community that should be acknowledged. The act of acknowledging the work of others, especially when we disagree, indicates we realize caring and thoughtful people can agree to disagree. If one disagrees with the community’s decision should they disappear? By no means. Keep arguing, raise the pertinent issues, refine your argument and try to change minds. But keep in mind the community came to a decision. This is an important part of continued debate over issues that can divide us.

Finally, respect for others should guide our discourse and debates. When he came to our campus former Senator and negotiator George Mitchell told us solutions to the seemingly intractable problems he worked on began to emerge when respect for the other party was demonstrated repeatedly. This respect established the trust needed to find solutions. As we move forward in our debates and disagreements let us make sure our actions and arguments are guided by respect for each other. This is the fundamental feature of how we can continue to disagree and debate with one another, but disagree in a civil and ultimately constructive manner.

Professor Andy Overman, Classics