Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 9, 2018

conversation and equality

When I spoke at Duke a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit with some of the students of Walter Sinnot-Armstrong. (Walter is a delightful fellow, by the way, and has a book coming out later this year, Think Again, that I am presumptuous enough to see as an excellent sequel to How to Think.) The students were supposed to have read my book, and by the quality of their questions I suspect they actually had. One of those questions has stuck with me, and I have been mulling it over. 

“Your book,” the student said, “seems to presume an equality in status and power. When you tell people to seek out the best representatives of opposing views, or to try to articulate those views as accurately and fairly as possible, you’re assuming that everybody at the conversational table is there on the same terms. But what if they’re not? What if some people are marginalized, excluded, oppressed? Is it really appropriate to ask them to be so thoughtful towards those who are, at best, complicit in exclusion and oppression?” 

It’s a fair question. I responded by saying that when you are literally at the table together (as we were at that moment) there is at least a limited kind of equality, one that is real even if it doesn’t erase all the political and social inequalities that afflict our society; and, that limited and local equality presents certain tactical challenges: How may it best be used by people who believe themselves to be marginalized and oppressed? And, I said, a case can be made for engaging people respectfully even when you don’t actually respect them — simply on the “know your enemy” principle. 

This is a version of the debate over civility, which has been going on with waning and waxing intensity for longer than most of us realize — it certainly didn't begin with the rise of social media. Stephen Carter’s book Civility appeared in 1998, and was immediately attacked by Randall Kennedy in The American Prospect: "The civility movement is deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires: intellectual clarity; an insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies; and a willingness to fight loudly, openly, militantly, even rudely for policies and values that will increase freedom, equality, and happiness in America and around the world.” I suspect Kennedy would, like Walter Sinnot-Armstrong’s shrewd student, see my book as a recipe for subtly maintaining the inequalities of the status quo. 

This preference for militant and rude argument is not confined to the left. Consider, for instance, these words by my old friend Paul Griffiths

I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic Theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents. And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference—these no longer have the place they once had in the university.

Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our élite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.

There are a great many complex issues here, and I’m still trying to work through them, and will continue to post on these matters as I am able to get some clarity. Two of my chief interlocutors in the coming posts will be friends of mine. One is Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a working draft of whose book-in-progress Generous Thinking is posted here. The other is Chad Wellmon, whose proposal for a “modest university” may be read here

But let me start by making a few distinctions: 

  • between (to borrow phrases from Griffiths) “harsh and direct disagreement” and “aggressive and speech-denying protest,” i.e., no-platforming; 
  • between how we may treat our colleagues and how we may treat our students; 
  • between public universities and private ones, or, more generally, between those that claim to be open to all and those that have a distinctive mission to particular groups of students (e.g., HBCUs and religious colleges); 
  • between conditions that prevail within the university and those that prevail in the general society, extramurally as it were. 

I’ve dealt with some of these issues in previous essays — here’s one and here’s another — but I haven’t yet achieved full clarity. (In that second essay in particular I am trying to lay a foundation for better thinking about these issues.) I’m hoping to inch closer to that in future posts, which will not come immediately but over s period of time, and interspersed with other things. Please help out in the comments if you can! 


  • Such an important set of issues to work through. As someone who is (mostly) politically and socially "on the right" I find myself instinctively wanting to push back against the unnamed student in your piece. But also to defend Mr. Griffiths. As you point out, that may not make sense.

    One thought I have is that part of the problem with the POV of the student is that we live in a world of Original Sin. It may well be that power imbalances make an open, trust-presuming dialog suboptimal. But the minute you give fallen human being "permission" to be less than charitable to one another in certain circumstances they will tend to find those circumstances behind every tree and under every rock. Let's say a politically liberal Black or Hispanic woman attending Dartmouth finds herself in conversation with an alt-right sympathizing 20 year old white male who works as a forklift driver in a warehouse. Does the woman have permission to be less than civil and open because she is a member of multiple groups who have historically been oppressed by white men? Or does the man have permission to be less than civil because he's a member of an economically struggling working class most of whose members will never in their lives enjoy the advantages provided by holding a diploma from Dartmouth? If you were inclined to say yes to the woman and not that man (and I suspect that one's political priors influence your view on that a lot) then does your answer change if her parents are a corporate lawyer and a dentist, while his are a single mother who works at the Speedway and a man who skipped town 20 years and 9 months ago? If her name is "Sasha Obama" and he suffers from a severe disability?

    The problem with citing "power imbalances" to justify different standards of behavior is not that power imbalances don;t exist, it's that power is multivalent. None of us have one identity. We each have a racial identity, a sex, a sexuality, certain economic circumstances in our childhood, certain familial and emotional circumstances in our childhood, deeply held religious and philosophical commitments that are either in favor or out of favor at our moment of history, wildly different intellectual and physical talents, and the benefits of great luck or the consequences of great misfortune to different degrees. And most of us are REALLY good at pointing to all of the ways in which our own circumstances are challenged.

  • A thought on Mr. Griffiths (some of whose writings I've read and admired). In my experience people who insist on "telling it like it is" are often simply rude. And again, it's not that "telling it like it is" isn't valuable. I worship a God sometimes referred to as "Logos." Truth matters. A lot. But again, in a fallen world we all have a tendency to be shitty toward people who frustrate us. And it is very easy to rationalize that shittiness as simply a stronger preference for following Truth to its fullest conclusions.

    Rigorous and open debate "works" best when the participants share some baseline sense of community and shared values. I'm a big believer in intellectual diversity, but if intellectual diversity is layered on top of cultural diversity and socio-economic diversity and lifestyle diversity and every other form of atomization then goodness gracious what's to stop us from being animals to one another.

    The famous culture of rigorous debate at the University of Chicago may well have been made possible by the institution's location in a very small neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by neighborhoods much less safe and economically prosperous, and isolated several miles from the heart of the city. That forced a level of off-hours community that was likely stronger than what you'd find at Harvard or Stanford. You could say brutal things about your colleague's newest papers or his ideas about how to run the department because your kids went to the Lab School together and you sometimes ran into him having a beer at Jimmy's.

    Or put another way, "Don't take it personal" only works when you have a basis for what is "personal" in your relationship that is outside the debate at hand. Which is another way of understanding why most Comments sections are filled with things almost nobody would ever say to another person's face and would certainly never say to a friend, even a friend with which they disagreed.

  • I find your Duke interlocutor's challenge very compelling. I prefer civil, quiet, "cold" disagreement to harsh, loud, "hot" disagreement -- but/and anytime I find myself grumbling about the difference (a recent community meeting comes to mind) I immediately, without fail, step back and realize I'm the person in the room who has suffered the least, who has the least to lose. Turns out, it's just very easy to remain civil, and to demand civility, when the status quo is tolerable.

    This makes me think of annealing, the process by which metals are heated to very high temperatures, then allowed to cool and recrystallize into a stronger configuration. The term is also used metaphorically for some processes in software -- a technique by which you randomly disrupt certain configurations and, with luck, find better ones. Maybe the heat of dissent helps us anneal our culture, our social practices. And maybe it's no surprise, then, that the people who enjoy the heat least are the ones for whom the current configuration is copacetic.

  • One of the more complex questions you’ve thrown out to your commentariat. No complete answer here, but I’ll offer a perspective. When it comes to ideas shared in public spheres of influence, I’m selfish and maybe a bit lazy about getting worked into a lather to make things happens, which often enough results only in offending everyone and causing myself anxiety, not moving the needle. I judge that the percentage of times when scorched earth becomes worthwhile is considerably less than the percentage of times when people are willing to engage wantonly. Can’t say what the proper percentage is, as times and issues change, but many of the presumed scourges now being confronting are either revisionist history or the awful stepchildren of pure ideation. They don’t deserve to be taken seriously just because they’re vociferously fought.

  • brutus: that's a very good word. Your experience is not far from mine.

    Stephen: those are fascinating comments. I would point people to them on Twitter if I were still on Twitter. A good illustration of one of your points is the recent kerfuffle at NYU, where a student was offended by what he or she felt to be racism embedded in a cafeteria and succeeded in getting two cafeteria workers fired. I think it's safe to say that neither of those cafeteria workers (one of whom is black) had the degree of privilege necessary to attend NYU.

    Robin: I'm with you 100%. This is why I said in my talk at Duke, "I will try not to make a plea for civility. (I best commend civility by practicing it myself rather than chastising other people for their failures to do so.)" Civility really can be used a club by the superior on the inferior. And I think I may take your metaphor of "annealing" and run with it....

  • A few thoughts:

    1. The stress-testing of positions through argument seems to be a very important part of the process of truth and justice, even if it isn't the only part. It is also an important part of holding leaders and authority figures accountable. However, most people aren't temperamentally suited for such discourse, or have a strong aversion to it. The idea that just discourse requires that everyone with a personal stake in the conversation be present at the table seems to present a problem. To be inclusive, we would seem to have to abandon the form of discourse.

    2. One of the frustrating things about social media, for instance, is the way that it radically democratizes discourse, giving the impression that every person's opinion merits consideration. Most people's opinions on most matters are unworthy of consideration, as most people have not studied most issues (which of us has?). However, radical inclusion and civility make it difficult to point this out in the ways that it should be. The drive to make institutions and conversations more inclusive, by compromising demanding criteria of inclusion, can end up implicitly requiring the giving of a hearing to positions that simply aren't worthy of one. We're seeing a lot of this on both the right and the left at the moment.

    3. We have institutions like the law which establish processes of arriving at truth and justice, but which restrict certain forms of speech to people who are gifted and trained at them, and have structures of advocacy to ensure the representation of people's interests. Truth and justice aren't made to depend upon a single discourse, table, or conversation, but upon the integration of several. Perhaps we could learn something from this.

    4. Agonistic forms of discourse aimed at stress-testing truth tend to require privilege of their participants, as their participants are expected to be trained combatants. For them to be effective, they tend to require the removal of weaker and more vulnerable persons from the site of discourse.

    5. The traditional form of discourse that Griffiths and others are calling for is one that is particularly male in character. It arises from a male dignity culture and from practices of male agonism. We shouldn't be surprised to see that problems surrounding this form of discourse increase as the situation in universities gradually ceases to be one of women entering into male places and as women become the majority in all positions. More typically female forms of discourse have a rather different character than male ones, as various researchers have observed. We shouldn't be surprised that the recent issues on campus have involved the rise of classic forms of female intrasexual competition related to the realm of academia: no-platforming, social ostracization, attacking of reputations, etc. This isn't going to be an easy issue to address, especially since these gender differences run pretty deep. Public discourse had to tame the dysfunctions of male interaction in the past, replacing honour culture and its duels with dignity culture. However, we still haven't solved the problems of gender-integrated society on many fronts.

    6. People need emotional security to think well. And our society doesn't really provide many people with these conditions. The attempt to purge society of agonism and remove challenging voices requires, among other things, consideration of why so many young people feel so emotionally exposed (see some thoughts on that here).

  • That annealing metaphor is scary!

    First of all, in annealing, the objective function—the thing you're trying to optimize—is given, known in advance. In politics, generally it's vigorously contested. (Even calling it an objective function is already pushing the annealing metaphor too far, I think.)

    In annealing, under certain conditions you're guaranteed that once you heat things up to get out of your local optimum, you'll eventually arrive at a global optimum. I haven't seen politics work that way very often, empirically.

    Another thing about annealing: Once you heat things up to bounce out of the local optimum, you have to gradually cool things back down to find the global optimum. In politics, once you heat things up, how do you cool them back down?

    What you call annealing I call playing with fire.

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