Monday, January 26, 2009

The only permitted kind

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:

The overarching purpose for the Advisory Committee on Civil Dialogue is to foster the ability of Texas A&M University faculty, staff, and students to engage difference in today’s multicultural globalized society through civil dialogue. By “difference” we mean any distinction that people draw between themselves and others as reflected in their values, beliefs, and attitudes that is informed by ideology, religion, cultural heritage, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. By “civil dialogue” we mean a form of communication that allows people to express vigorously their opinions and points of view, but in a way that contributes to rigorous and constructive deliberation on significant issues and empowers personal and professional relationships. The ability to engage difference productively, particularly those differences we find difficult and challenging, is crucial for sustaining democratic practice within society, generating collaboration among people and institutions, and creating innovation in business, governmental, nonprofit, and community enterprises.Again, you were wrong to suppose that in dialogue you engage, not “difference,” but disagreement. As you ought to have understood long before now, the most important human question at present is how people draw distinctions between themselves and others—how they demand to be respected, or at least not to be offended.

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.


Robert Zimmerman said...

I think it's clear that I was mystified by a number of points you made "the last time [you] advanced this claim," but my complaints were a lot more specific than that you were just "pushing aside history and yearning for a Golden Age that never existed." I had no trouble understanding that when you talked about "the loss of the university principle altogether" you were referring to an idea. Nonetheless, what gets my attention is the "altogether."

I'm still mystified after reading this post. Once upon a time, it seems, "what was encouraged was the common pursuit [of the truth]", and anyone who participated had to be prepared to be proved wrong--I like that part of the formulation, that one could be proved wrong and still be participating in the pursuit. If I felt like I was stuck in an academic milieu in which any meaningful contest of ideas had been swamped (overshadowed? trumped? hobbled?) by this new "social principle," I would hate it. But I don't accept the implied either/or, and it's not the situation I observe, though as non-voting, part-time faculty I'm not really in the thick of it.

Anonymous said...

The liberal yearns for an idealized future, the conservative for an idealized past. Each lives in a world of utopian fantasy and, all too often, utopian zealotry. The rest of us suffer at the altars of their fever dreams.

Hopeful for the future said...

I came across this blog post while doing some research on civil dialogue. I am somewhat dismayed by the decline of "civil dialogue" into a positional argument where all parties leave believing what they believed when they walked in, regardless of what was said in the room. Where is the curiosity, the willingness to admit mistakes, the ability to shift position when confronted with other evidence?

Anyway, my comment is really to say that your quotation (lovers who gaze not into each others' eyes but as friends who turn and look in the same direction) I believe comes from Saint-Exupery in Terre des Hommes: Aimer, ce n'est pas se regarder l'un l'autre, c'est regarder ensemble dans la même direction. I'd be curious to know if CS Lewis wrote something similar.