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Michael Casey: Disagreeing should not be a crime

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Disagreement can be respectful; quarrelling attempts to dominate and shut down the other. Photo:

Imagine a world which repudiates a common human nature and where ‘enemies’ are not spared

Think about what happens when we become enemies with someone. Three things jump out straight away.

First, there are the emotions: deep, powerful and all-consuming. This is obvious when they are raging, but they are no less frightening when they smoulder. Like the heat in hot ash, it can look like the fire is out. Let the wind pick up from the wrong direction, however, and you quickly have an inferno.

Then there is the sense of injustice which makes it possible for these feelings to grip us for so long. This is easiest to understand when we have been wronged ourselves, when someone we love has been wronged, or when others have been treated badly by people who are stronger.

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What is strange is how some who cause these wrongs imagine themselves unjustly treated by their victims. Blaming the victim is the common form this takes, but there is more to it than a self-serving rationalisation. For people with evil in their hearts, innocence and weakness can be an irresistible provocation, goodness an intolerable insult.

Finally, there is the determination to injure and – if possible – to destroy. Enemies at war obviously seek to destroy each other, and the instinct to hurt those who have hurt us is powerful. This is one reason why we admire innocent people who insist on justice, not revenge, despite the terrible wrongs or injuries they have suffered. Contrast the Psalms for example, where it is the wicked who long for the death of the just.

Sketching out what real, full-blooded enmity is like helps clarify not only the absurdity of thinking that disagreement makes us enemies, but also the importance of de-escalating disagreements so that enmity does not take hold.

Not every disagreement can be between friends, let alone be friendly, but it is possible to keep disagreement within the broad bounds of the spirit of friendship.

Disagreement has to operate in a manner which keeps things together, rather than tearing everything apart. A distinguished Chesterton scholar recently pointed out to me the distinction GKC made between a quarrel and an argument. Chesterton wrote fondly of his brother that “we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled”. While an argument seeks to clarify the truth, a quarrel seeks to block it.

Not every disagreement can be between friends, let alone be friendly, but it is possible to keep disagreement within the broad bounds of the spirit of friendship. Even disagreements over transactions can be kept within this spirit; if not by a shared desire to sort out the dispute to everyone’s satisfaction, then at least by abiding by the rules with basic respect for each other.

This might sound pretty minimal, but its effects are far from it. It makes it possible to disagree and preserve a life in common. It keeps all the things we share above all our disagreements, so that disagreement does not make us enemies to each other.

One of the darkest shadows gathering over the bare-knuckled disagreements generated on issues like identity, gender, sex, life and race, concerns what we have in common. Is it defined by our shared humanity or by membership of one of a growing number of righteous tribes? The enmity – even hatred – on the part of some in these fights suggests one answer.

If that answer were confirmed, we would move into a very different world. A glimpse can be seen in American scholar Gary Saul Morson’s observation that Leninism is the spirit of our age. Leninism teaches that “there is no objective truth, only class truth, and no human morality, only class morality”. Soviet children were taught “that compassion and honesty are vices, because they depend on the notion of human, rather than class, moral standards and may lead one to spare a class enemy”.

We do not talk much about class today, but the dismissal by some people of objective truth and common moral principles as nothing more than the deceptions which privileged groups use to disguise and justify their domination of other groups, does suggest that Lenin’s ghost continues to lurk among us.

A world which repudiates a common human nature and shared moral principles would not just be one where different identity groups have different truths, and different tribes have different moralities. It would also be one where those who disagreed with those truths and moralities would be enemies; and enemies would not be spared.

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