On Disagreement

I've recently realized that people being friends with other people with whom they have significant philosophical differences is a bit of a theme in my books.

It first comes up in City of Masks, my first novel, where two elderly scholars sit firmly on opposite sides of a philosophical divide that is also political, and which is attached to factions that are literally at war in the city. (I based the factions extremely loosely off the Guelphs and Ghibellines, with possibly a touch of the Blue and Green factions that started out as fans of chariot racing in the Byzantine Empire and ended up as political and, some say, religious parties, each supported by what amounted to street gangs.) The two men have been friends since their youth, and live together, and while they argue and bicker over their beliefs, they are always staunch allies for each other when it counts.

I've recently re-read the existing three novels in my Auckland Allies series, because I want to write a fourth one, and one of the things I did there that I don't see done often is that different characters have quite different beliefs about how key components of the magical world function. In most fantasy novels, if there's a theory of magic at all, there's one theory of magic, which is universally accepted and correct.

A moment's reflection on any given discipline will tell you that this is unrealistic. (Of course, fantasy novels are unrealistic by definition, but my feeling is that the non-magical bits should be as realistic as possible; you get a certain number of suspension-of-disbelief points from your audience, and you shouldn't squander them.) Practically any real-world phenomenon you can name, if you consult enough experts, will be explained by at least two mutually incompatible theories, of which each has its staunch adherents, and neither of which can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Both of them are almost certainly incomplete and, in some ways, misleading. This doesn't stop passionate support of one or other of them being an excuse for politics and interpersonal rivalries.

Unlike the bickering scholars in City of Masks, Dan and Tara in Auckland Allies don't (so far) argue about whether demons are just elaborate spells with personality-like user interfaces, or actual beings; they had all of those arguments years ago, they each know the other's position and that it isn't going to change, so they don't revisit the dispute even when it comes up in conversation. But the disagreement is there, under the surface. They are on the same side, though, when it comes to action; there's never any question of that.

The reason I mention this is that we're in a historical moment where people are forgetting that you can disagree profoundly with someone on a philosophical or religious or political point, or on how the world is as well as how it ought to be, and still be that person's friend and even supporter. A great deal of space exists between "you agree with everything I say and are fully behind every part of my agenda" and "you hate me and fear me and should be burned at the stake on social media for it," but that vast gap is not often acknowledged. US political polarization, aided by both mainstream media and social media, has created the environment of us vs. them; you're in or you're out; you're a member of my faction and therefore can do anything without being criticized, or you're a member of the other faction and therefore can't do anything without being criticized.

This kind of attitude breeds a kind of distributed McCarthyism, where one has to say the exact right things in front of the court of social media or lose one's career without appeal. It creates a chilling effect, where people don't dare to express particular opinions if they want continued access to certain audiences or other groups, because those opinions have been deemed unacceptable in any form, and no discussion will be entered into.

That's not for a moment to say that anyone should be able to say any offensive thing they like without being challenged on it. Again, though, there's a vast gap between politely expressing a disagreement about beliefs and placing yourself in implacable, hate-filled opposition to people who hold a different belief.

Here's my bottom line. I stand with all of my fellow human beings, but particularly the ones who treat their fellow human beings like fellow human beings. Often, that turns out to be liberals, but by no means always; and when it isn't, then I don't stand with them in that particular fight (while still standing with them as fellow human beings who deserve to be treated as such). I don't have a political affiliation; I have a set of principles that doesn't map well onto any existing political divide, but sprawls messily across bits of several of them.

And I believe that we need to remember that we can be friends and help each other without having to agree about everything.

And that's as much as I dare to say at this time.

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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