Can Black People Disagree Without Disrespect?

The year is 1770. The location, London, England. The setting, a memorial for Anglican clergyman and good friend to Benjamin Franklin, George Whitfield. Standing at the pulpit eulogizing his beloved friend is fellow clergyman, theologian and founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley. “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature,” he says to the mourners. “In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials.” Whitfield himself wrote the phrase in a letter on unity in 1750, using it to describe the unimportance of unlikeness where unity is the goal. “After all”, he writes, “those who will live in peace must agree to disagree in many things with their fellow-labourers, and not let little things part or disunite them.” The phrase since then has grown in popularity, referring to the resolution of a disagreement whereby opposing parties accept but do not agree with the position of the opposing side. Parties generally “agree to disagree” when all sides have recognized that further discussion or debate will not yield an otherwise amicable outcome and may result in unnecessary conflict. All sides agree to remain on amicable terms while continuing to disagree about the original disagreement. This resolution is one of mutual respect and reason, sound judgment and an honest effort to reach resolution with real resolve in mind. I hate to take a page out of white male 18th century history, but it’s time we learned to agree to disagree, and do so without the disrespect.

With that said, I must pose the pressing questions, can there be mutual understanding without mutual respect, and is a lack of respect at the helm of our deadly debates? If the Gayle King interview and the outcry that followed are any indication, I’d say the answers to those questions are a resounding no, and a hell yes. We’re not discussing her timing, which was pretty poor, or her tone, which if we’re being candid was condescending, or even her intent, which was pretty obviously ill. It’s pretty safe to say the gross majority of us disagreed with the deed itself. But that’s right around where things got a little ludicrous. Now from a journalistic standpoint, I have to say that in her defense, there are just some topics that it’ll never be the right time to discuss. Like Joe Jackson’s parenting practices, Whitney Houston’s drug addiction, Martin Luther King Jr.’s multiple affairs, Rosa Parks being a knockoff Claudette Colvin, etc., some subjects, just the mention alone are enough to earn you a visit from the cancel vultures. So kudos to Gail for knowingly gearing up for that gut punch. But there’s disagreeing with a journalist’s line of questioning because you find it disrespectful and insensitive…. and then there’s threatening an actual living person over the legacy of the deceased. I have a serious problem with that valuation. You should too.

The only thing worse than the collective response to the Gail King interview was the collective response to the collective response. Snoop Dog has walked women on leashes in broad daylight and cheated on his wife of a couple decades so many times that the last time he had to fake a docuseries as a cover up. He’s bragged about selling women to other stars while on tour and, to my knowledge, has never appeared to be a spokesperson for the protection of women and children. He’s never advocated against colorism, which his only daughter, Cori, openly struggles with. He’s never advocated for policy to address the crisis in maternal and infant mortality despite his son, Corde, recently experiencing the loss of his newborn. He’s never even advocated for prison reform or spoken against black Americans being arrested more for marijuana offenses, despite being one of the biggest open consumers of cannabis in hip hop. This man doesn’t advocate for the family he has, if this was a role he felt like trying on, he’s had ample opportunity to do so. But we’re no stranger to letting men with little sense speak on our behalf, and so he took liberty and we allowed it, even supported it, even after hearing how violent it was. But now that cooler heads have prevailed, we have to address what about us would have us believing that Snoop Dog was ever the right messenger, whatever that message was intended to be. And then we have to ask how after hearing his message, we could continue to defend not only the messenger, but also the message?

What makes us associate philosophical differences with the need for physical correction? I mean, I know most of the people who didn’t take issue initially with a man threatening a senior woman in his own community felt that the threat was just that, a threat. No real harm, more than likely, was to befall Gayle King, at least that was the defense. But what about the threat, even if just a threat, was excusable? Seriously. I’m not gonna dredge out some unnecessary, imaginary scenario about your mother, or sister, or auntie being threatened to have her head bashed in because she made a statement someone didn’t like because, well, we’re all adults here, and I shouldn’t have to make it personal to make it palpable. Instead, let’s talk about that question directly, because I think the actual question and the answers to it matter. What about even the threat of physical harm in the midst of debate or disagreement is empathetic, or sensical, or safe, or sociable, or mature or any of the many things Gayle King has been accused of not being for sitting in a chair and asking a question, albeit a couple of impolite ones? How do we get from one to the other?

One day we’ll have the conversation about how our perception of disagreement as detrimental began on the plantation. One day we will discuss the origin of our perception of disagreement as discord and deal with the uncomfortable reality that during slavery, alignment meant allieship, two being in disagreement wasn’t just unacceptable, it was unsafe. And so we formed a casual distrust of one another, agreeing to walk the fine line between ally and adversary, only to be tossed away at the smallest inclination of betrayal. And one day we will sit down and process how that history has resulted in the way we casually disrespect and disregard one another over the non-essentials, and how when, coupled with patriarchy and sexism, that makes things insufferable for Black women in their own communities. But until then, we need to find a safe page to meet on and agree to stay there when it comes to our rules of engagement. Of which, safe, respectful, agreeable disagreements have to be one of them.

Not to mention, no man should feel comfortable threatening bodily harm to a woman who has inflicted none on him. If we can’t agree on that, we need to talk about what about respecting women’s humanity we’re still struggling with. Because that’s what this is about, not about Black men being fed up with Oprah and Gayle’s master man-bashing mission, and certainly not about respecting Kobe’s legacy (which honestly, Gayle doesn’t have the range to tarnish). We have a respect deficit in our community. And where there is little respect for someone’s humanness, there is little respect for their life. If nothing else, this situation proves what many Black have been trying to convey, the fear that even in death, a Black man’s life, or in this instance the memory of, is of more value than theirs. I have a serious problem with that valuation. You should too.