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Around the world, disagreement is a dying art

Friday November 10 2017

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Horror has been playing for a while in the world with the Syrian War. Syria, according to WikiLeaks’ damming reports, is not just engaged in a civil war.

It is a cruel fratricide, fuelled by the economic and resource interests of Russia, a few Middle East countries and the United States, which trained and armed ISIS before the group went out of control.

Elsewhere, the Paradise Papers, a chilling thriller, were released last week. This mega off-shore tax evasion scandal involves unsuspecting leaders, from the Queen of England to Shakira, from President Santos of Colombia to the former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the former mayor of Barcelona and current councillor, Xavier Trias.

The Paradise Papers are several tons of confidential papers leaked from the off-shore law firm, Appleby, to a German newspaper, and published on November 5, 2017.The Boston Consulting Group claims the amount of money involved is around $10 trillion.

Kenya has not been left behind. Our specialty is drama, and it is about to play out with Supreme Court Season II – Everyone v. IEBC.

Thrillers stem from unchecked ambition, greed and blurred reason. As the plot progresses, they degenerate into dramas, and then horrors. We stop thinking, we stop talking and we cannot tolerate disagreement.

‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’ was the title of a lecture delivered by Bret Stevens at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday, 23 September, 2017. A sizeable number of ‘liberals’ complained bitterly and called for Stevens’ talk to be suspended.


I consider The New York Times reproduction of that lecture one of the most illuminating newspaper pieces on freedom of thought and democratic debate.

Truth be told, many of Stevens’ ideas are controversial, but he wonders about the fate of countless individuals whose views are increasingly shunned in American university campuses: excluded from public discourse. It is a:

depressing trend on American university campuses, where the roster of disinvited speakers and forced cancellations includes former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, former Harvard University President Larry Summers, actor Alec Baldwin, human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, DNA co-discoverer James Watson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, filmmaker Michael Moore, conservative Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will and liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen, to name just a few.

Disagreement, Stevens says, is central to a decent society as agreement is. Its role in a democracy is crucial to the sustenance of a functioning society:

every groundbreaking idea is in opposition to yet another groundbreaking idea and the oscillation between ideas has marked the epochal evolution of knowledge.

Harvard guru Michael Sandel has also been pushing for the need to rediscover the art of democratic debate. He says it is pointless to pretend that any truly democratic debate is devoid of certain underlying moral principles, religious convictions and philosophical questions.


We have undermined rational democratic debate in two ways. First, some people have emptied their thinking of any philosophical, moral and religious convictions in an attempt to become ‘objective’. However, this objectivity is a philosophical position in itself.

Second, other people have made use of philosophical, moral and religious convictions to hide behind irrational postures and manipulate decision making, justifying discrimination and intolerance.

People are not judged by the quality and depth of their thinking;

the primary test of the argument is not the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial or sexual standing (I might add ethnic) of the person making it.

Manipulation is not sustainable, and sooner or later thrillers turn to dramas and then horrors.


Culture, religion and ethnicity should enrich the quality and depth of ideas. They should help appreciate diversity but narrow minded views have polarised politics and tarnish the debate. The freedom to disagree is under attack.

Increasing polarisation leads to deafness, where we cannot stomach opposing, discomforting ideas and react violently.

Phyllis Mutunga argues with great concern that the art of disagreement is dying in Kenya. Recent developments are eroding the security to interrogate ideas.

As individuals recoil back into themselves by reverting into identity politics, the space that allows for evaluation and critique recoils as well and the difference between critique and offence narrows, making the idea of university in itself redundant.

As the reasoning space shrinks, religious, social, ethnic or political radicalisation prosper. Hard, unflinching stances on political and religious issues are a sore blight in our societies.

Such a society creates a ‘Frankenstein’ of those that are unheard, shunned and quieted. In doing so, it marginalises a group of people, whose silence is carried with travail, burdening any effort for progress and especially, democratic progress.


Ethnic radicalisation warps the understanding of politics; it distorts the views one is capable of listening and responding to. Each form of radicalisation forms the idea of the “Other” while disassociating from and precluding it simultaneously.

What comes to be are mammoth mental walls, unwilling and incapable of engaging any difference of opinion; a travesty of life and of society.  

In 2004, two of the world’s greatest contemporary thinkers, Jurgen Habermas, a Neo-Marxist social critic and philosopher and Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) met in Munich, Germany. These two men represented great intellectual “antipodes”, whose work has been diametrically opposed.

Habermas would describe himself as tone-deaf in the religious sphere. Joseph Ratzinger symbolised for many the personification of the Catholic faith.

The purpose of their meeting was to discuss a topic which both have contributed significantly to: The dialectics of secularisation. Habermas embodied the gains of the Enlightenment: Reason. Ratzinger on the other hand, stood as the religious leader with no place in the public square.


Here were the sons of two forces seemingly in contradiction, meeting to prove that indeed there was more that united them than separated them.

The crowd that gathered, and the readers that clamoured for the book once it was published, were not so naive as to expect a harmonisation of ideas between the two. They knew they would not hold their breaths for an agreement.

Instead, they waited to experience the genius in the art of disagreement that transpired between the two. Between them was interest or even curiosity, genuine listening, an apt understanding and an honest discussion in search of truth and meaning.

The magic that night was in the profound respect for thought and discourse that, though running in parallels, traced a society where disagreement is one of the ways through which we can learn how to learn.

We should make place for such conversations in our schools, in our homes, in our public squares, in our minds, and in our tribal, polarized, polluted political space.

We do not have to agree, but we have to re-learn how to disagree. We must resuscitate the dying art of disagreement, lest we go from drama to horror.