This week, I stepped in the muck in a Facebook post. As a Jew, a friend had posted what she felt was an obvious response to a contemporary issue of anti-Semitism. I don’t want to get into the details, but a (seemingly well intentioned but non-Jewish) friend of hers disagreed that the issue in question was anti-Semitic, and was bullied out of the conversation. But I too disagreed. It is worth worrying about anti-Semitism, but I didn’t feel that this met the criteria, so I wrote a comment chiming in about it.
The responses to my post were pretty outscaled. First, it was assumed that I wasn’t Jewish since I didn’t agree. Then I was accused of being uninformed. I popped in to try to explain my point of view, but meanwhile, I started feeling bad about the ad hominem attacks. And then, exasperated, my friend declared that she just was completely flummoxed about how and why I could possibly not understand the issue (and hence, agree with her).
The answer really is quite simple: I disagree.
But that isn’t really so simple, is it?
The situation, as most of the Facebook page saw it, was that in a situation of anti-Semitism, there is a big power differential between mainstream, Christian America and a minority group (Jews) which have seen a big increase in anti-Semitic acts in recent years. I don’t dispute that part. But what conclusion should we draw from it?
In this conversation, the rule was clear and agreed upon: if you are in the majority, you may not disagree with the assessment or statement of the beleaguered group. If “they” (Jewish people) are telling you it is anti-Semitic, then it is, even if you can’t understand it.
In order to strengthen this point, various people pointed to other blind-spot acts of cultural appropriation, historical blunders, and demanded that allyship with powerless groups from a position of power necessarily means silence. If you are in a situation of a deep power imbalance, the person with more power may not offer an opinion that differs from the assessment of the less powerful.
Again, I don’t agree. The solution to a group being powerless can’t be to render another, larger group powerless, in the hopes that it will all balance out and turn out fair. I really do believe that there are other forms of dialogue, conversation, and respect that allow the goodness of all people to shine, and I hold this dear like a faith proposition.
I think a lot about how, in this country, it is expected that you will agree with your friends, and disagree with people who aren’t your friends. Seeing the world from the same lens is part of what bonds people together. A ton of things have been said about polarization, and how unlikely it is for people of different political parties to be friends with each other, or marry, and I don’t mean to rehash the conversation around highly charged topics.
But what about not so highly charged topics?
My daughter Emma is deep in the 4th grade process of shifting friendships. Two girls with whom she has been friends for a couple of years seems to be closing ranks without her, and she’s slowly warming to the idea of making some new friends. But the details of this are being worked out as disagreements. Daily, they argue about which part of the playground to spend time on. Because Emma feels hurt by them excluding her, she rejects their suggestion that they play in one spot and instead insists that a different part of the playground is better. And then, when Emma suggests getting a ball from the PE teacher, they suggest it would be more fun to play with dolls.
These are small things. If they were still all feeling really great about their friendship, they would be easy to work out, as I saw them do throughout last year. But all of their feelings are hurt, and so the friendship is breaking over these disagreements, over her unwillingness to affirm their assessments and their unwillingness to go along with hers.
Eventually, my guess is that they will stop being friends, and they’ll tell the story that the reason was that she wanted to spend recess one way, and they disagreed. Disagreement will be the reason that they all give that they are no longer friends.
The truth is, I believe in disagreement. I believe it’s productive and healthy. I think it should be possible to say “you are wrong” and not mean, “you are dangerous and bad.” I wish that it didn’t mean that you can’t be friends anymore, as it seems to on the Facebook page, and in the 4th grade.
An academic friend who writes both in English and Hebrew (and consequently knows the scholarly communities in both the U.S. and Israel) says that in American scholarship, scholars tiptoe around the scholarship of one another, even when the disagreement is vehement. “So-and-so might consider the impact of XYZ before concluding A,” would be a pretty strident objection in some academic journals.
In Israeli journals, it would read more like “So-and-so is wrong in her assessment.”
And more importantly, they wouldn’t dislike each other any more for writing it this way. This kind of directness is appreciated, clear, and seen as the way to advance scholarship.
I believe that we can be caring, human, empathetic creatures, and we can still disagree. Even when it comes to hot-button issues, and ones of deep power imbalance.
I was really moved by a study in a book called Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels by Catherine Sanderson. There was a study about whether baseball fans were more likely to help (an actor) who stumbled on the grass wearing a jersey of their favorite team, an opposing team, or a plain t-shirt. 90% helped the person wearing their team’s jersey, 33% the plain shirt, and 30% the opposing team. That matches. But if you primed people, by asking them to think of themselves not as fans of their team, but of sports fans, the numbers start to shift.
Can I root for my team, and still root for humanity? I’m just going to say yes. Every time.