Disagreement: Good or Bad?

Here’s a silly thought on why talking about literature is fun, from an ancient book about reading by English critic John Sutherland:

“One of the reassuring features of the current vogue for reading groups is the degree of disagreement they generate once the discussion gets going” (John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006)

(Is there a vogue? Was there in 2006? Anyway:) The assumption that disagreement should be something people actually want, is interesting if somewhat crazy. Because disagreement to me seems a rather terrifying and useless thing. That’s why I don’t like it. Basically, it’s enough for me to watch it on tv, in ritualized debates between politicians. This has a rather soothing effect on me.

Any decent discussion in real life is very similar if not as efficient as such rituals. We all know that what we think somehow makes a difference in the world. The more chaotic the world seems to be, the more important it is not to debate but to stick to who you are and what you represent. It’s rather a question of choosing sides. Disagreement doesn’t help in any way. Every wrong opinion helps to destroy the world, every right opinion can save it. If someone disagrees with you, about climate change, gender studies, or the use of Anglizismen, they are basically bad people, and there’s no need to listen to them.

But that’s probably why Sutherland thinks disagreement is a good thing when we talk about cultural stuff, because the cultural, soft stuff (films, music, dreams etc.), by convention, isn’t as important as the real, hard stuff (jobs, money, power etc.). So there is no obligation to be right. We can say whatever we want: it won’t matter very much. And I admit that there’s a great amount of freedom to be had here, even if it’s an illusion; you can debate and still respect each other, you can even change your opinion, and you can learn something new (it’s still useless knowledge of course).

As Mr Sutherland points out, a discussion about a novel can feel almost as real and important as if it were about things that matter. Take the ever popular Wuthering Heights, for example:

“‘Is Heathcliff a swine or tragic hero?’: throw that question into the reading group and stand back. Chances are no two members of the group, however like-minded on other things, will entirely agree with each other at the beginning of the discussion, and – however opinions may have changed – members will usually disagree among themselves even more as the discussion (good naturedly) winds up.”

My friend Michael tells me that’s actually what he wants when he does Deep Reading. He says he likes people to discuss useless things in class, because he believes – somehow influenced by book lovers like Sutherland I think – that literature isn’t totally unimportant. (He is unable, of course, to explain this assessment.) He says he actually encourages people to disagree because he “likes it”.

I don’t know. It’s obviously wrong to think that way. But I thought I share this idea with you anyway.

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