Texas A&M University has formed a committee to explore institutional procedures “to foster greater respect on campus and to strengthen a culture that encourages civil dialogue.” Who can possibly hold out against civil dialogue? You might worry a little about the narrowing of civility’s meaning to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You might be haunted by the loss of an older meaning, where civility denoted, not a relationship founded upon deferential regard or esteem, but a common observance of common decencies, including common mistakes. You might even think that the best procedure for encouraging civil dialogue would be to foster a respect, not for persons, but for the fallacy of the argumentum ad personem.
You would be wrong, of course. The dean of liberal arts explains:
I need to distinguish myself from you in order to be personally “empowered.” That distinction might reside, not in me, but in what I have done or made—not a chance. So much for the older concept of dialogue in which I surrendered to a common pursuit of truth; and if I were personally disempowered by being proved mistaken, all to the good. What was encouraged was the common pursuit, not personal empowerment. Our relationship, yours and mine, was substantive. We may have pursued different conclusions, but we pursued them to the same end—the end of truth. To borrow from C. S. Lewis, we were not lovers, who gaze into each other’s eyes, but friends who turn and look off in the same direction.
For some time now, the university—not just in College Station—has been transforming itself from an institution that is distinguished by substantive relationships (a common allegiance to truth) into a social institution where a respect for persons, overbalancing into an obsession with personal difference, is the dominant note. In such an institution, the pressure to avoid substantive disagreements, to treat a difference of opinion as just another distinction that people draw between themselves and others, can be overwhelming. But since civility can decline into a merely formal relationship, a polite lack of interest, the countervailing pressure builds up to consider “difference” itself as substantive. We become absorbed in each other’s race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Albeit with respect rather than love, we gaze unprotestingly into each other’s eyes.
The last time I advanced this claim, I was accused of pushing aside history and yearning for a Golden Age that never existed. But I am talking about the idea of the university. I am holding out for civil dialogue, not as a social practice by which various members of a community are affirmed in their distinctiveness, but as an ideal by which the university is distinguished from other human institutions. Under such an ideal, arguments from personal difference are axiomatically false. In the new social university, where personal differences are elevated to the status of non-negotiable demands, argumentum ad personem may be the only permitted kind.