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Why ‘agree to disagree’ is such a horrible thing to say.

First of all it is contradictory. Are we agreeing or disagreeing?
If all it means is, “We agree that we disagree,” then it is a pretty silly thing to say. We both probably knew that earlier in the conversation.
If it means, “Let’s agree that we will continue to disagree,” then it is pretty stupid. The whole point of a disagreement is that each person think they are right and would be very happy if the other person came to see things in the ‘right’ way! No one in their right mind would really say, “Let’s agree to continue to disagree!”
But if it means, “I don’t want to talk about this so you have to shut up,” then it is contradictory, because it isn’t really based on an ‘agreement’. If both of you want to shut up, well, nothing’s keeping you talking! It is only when one of you wants to stop talking (perhaps because they are losing) that the infamous ‘agree to disagree’ raises its ugly head.

Which brings us to the second problem with the phrase: it is a form of blackmail. If the second person doesn’t ‘agree to disagree’… i.e. if they wish to continue to present their argument, well, then, under the modern rules of the game they are being ‘disagreeable’ and ‘argumentative’ and ‘unloving’ and all sorts of nasty things. So the second person is being forced to shut up by the first person (who, often, accompanies their ‘agree to disagree’ comment with a parting shot, and wishes for it to be the last word on the subject).

The third issue that raises its head goes to the foundation of the issue: should we be discussing this at all. There are two choices:

  1. Either we should never have been discussing this issue at all or
  2. We should be
    If (1) then the proper answer is not ‘agree to disagree’ but, “hey, sorry, I just realized that I should never have gotten into this discussion. My bad. Bye.” (And then remain willing to discuss why it wasn’t a good thing to discuss.) And if (2) then ‘agree to disagree’ (i.e. lets stop discussing) is the wrong thing to do…

… Because in important areas of life our goals should be to seek the truth, to let iron sharpen iron, to always be ready to give a defense… If the subject we are discussing is actually an important area of truth, then agree to disagree is precisely the wrong thing to do!
Now, I believe there are some ways to sign off a conversation at least for a little while.

In the lighter ones, "Hey, I have to go now, it's been nice talking to you."
In the heavier ones, "Wow, you've given me a lot to think about. My brain is about to pop. I'll get back to you later on this subject."

One time when I think it is a real mistake to bow out of a conversation is when the person is being annoyingly obtuse… perhaps even full Cathy Newman. In those cases I believe it is important to realize that in many cases (as Cathy found out) a lot of other people will be watching, and if you handle the situation calmly and well, you will convince them... even if you leave Cathy in the dust.

VonO 7 Mar 7

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Isn’t it mostly a conversational gambit used to end an unproductive conversation? If someone doesn’t want to speak and you try to compel them to, it’s aggression - even if you have justification withinin your own value system for trying to force the issue.

It’s kind of like a door-to-door canvasser who physically keeps you from shutting your door, to compel you to listen, because they think they have something important to say.

Yes... and no. The problem is that it is a one-sided and disingenuous way to end the conversation. The way it is usually used is to try to force the other side into recognizing some sort of parity. And it is often used by those who have just been slaughtered intellectually or by the facts.

@VonO Agreed. But I guess I just think it’s a way for someone to be a weasel that falls short of being “horrible”. I usually am not impressed when people use it either, but for me it’s just mildly disappointing, and they slip a bit in my estimation of them as debate partners.

Except when I know they’re good debate partners, then I figure it’s just a bid to move on to another subject.

Sometimes a thoughtful person uses it when the complexities of their argument are to many to go into right there and then.

That’s some of the usage of the term around me.

I only use the phrase when people much younger than me, in the full flush of having figured out something that explains life in some way, tell it to me with great energy, and it’s really elementary.

A teenager recently tried to teach me the “nature vs nurture” distinction, for example. I have a graduate education in philosophy and currently teach a fourth-year university psych course. This 16 year old argued that something I’d said Was asserting a 100% nurture position. I believe she thinks she obliterated in the debate.

I’ll sometimes end those kinds of situations with polite niceties that let younger or uneducated folks leave the conversation still feeling powerful. I don’t think I often use “we’ll have to agree to disagree”, but it’s that kind of soft bid to end the conversation without trying to win the debate.

It can be a handy construction, especially for people who confuse argument with opinion. Are you familiar with the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning? ( [] ).

Using reasoning in a self-disciplined way is not widespread. If someone is just being argumentative instead of arguing, I can see myself using something like “agree to disagree” to bail on a pointless conversation, if I feel like such a construction would give them the closure they need so we can end things and move on.

@Mehcanic Mostly agree. I think, for the reasons I mention above, we should eschew the construction entirely. In the case of your young friend I would probably have... well, after having a good argument 🙂... used something like, "This is a fascinating topic that I have read a lot about. Let me recommend a couple of books to you that will give you some idea of where I am coming from, and then we can have a follow up conversation."

@VonO I sometimes try, but my recommendation of a book is evidence enough to disqualify it as interesting or helpful. I’d have to trick her boyfriend into giving it to her. Everything he recommends is God’s own truth. She already “knows” I don’t know anything. It’s not a point that requires evidence, in her mind.

But it’s important for her individuation that she do that. She’s a fiercely independent young person and needs to experience autonomy in the formation of her ideas, and to pick her own trusted authorities.

That’s why I hold back a lot and just let her work it out within her own frame of reference.


Could mean -
We've exhausted available data and both conclusions are available. What a complex and wonderful world.

Conversations can just be about a relationship and are not always about knowledge. I'd probably say "I appreciate your perspective."

Well, if someone wanted to mean that, best to say it, eh? If you have exhausted the available data, then you would suggest both keep looking for more data, eh?
And I have never had anyone use 'agree to disagree' in a purely relationship discussion... except in jest. (Like, "I like chocolate Ice Cream." "Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree 🙂 " )


Your theory creates a bubble that this is the correct idea and no other idea need to be discussed. A majority of people apply the thinking pattern there prespective is correct. Agree to disagree is you engaging disturbance into your bubble while keeping civil and not canceling conversations. People will always hang themselves with bad ideas, so open engagement where everybody can observe is the best we can hope for.

I really don't understand what you mean. Could you give an example conversation?

@VonO ex: capitalism is standard for economies, no socialism is the only fair system. In reality an enconmy requires standard of both, which requires a conversation of pros and cons and how much socialist involvement there is. Police, fire department, first responders, and the military are some bench mark examples. Would you like more examples of additional points for market operations that don't involve soclist prespective.

@Phonics My post was about the use of the phrase 'agree to disagree'. I was kind of hoping that you would give me an example of the use of that phrase that would illustrate your point. I must stay I still don't understand it.

@VonO the point where I was making was when those conversations take place in the public realm the two individuals themselves might not gain ground but people observing the conversation you have a chance to win over insights and ideas between those people

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