Uncivil Discourse, Part Two: A Call for Intellectual Humility


To rehabilitate our public discourse, we each need to cultivate more self-awareness about the potential weaknesses and limitations of our own proposals.

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In yesterday’s article, I proposed a diagnosis for the increasingly uncivil nature of America’s public discourse. What Alasdair MacIntyre describes as the “rational incommensurability” of modern moral arguments and the suspicion that all such arguments are merely “masks” for a person’s will to power causes each side to suspect the hidden motives of their opponents.

Sadly, the great liberal tradition that had historically prided itself on its defense of free speech has more recently become suspicious of the speech it allows. “Free speech” is increasingly only for those whose motives are taken to be “right-minded.” When it comes to conversation, crazy people—Holocaust deniers, global warming deniers, traditional family defenders—need not apply. Since they are eminently unreasonable, it is no real violation of my “liberal” principles if I silence or shame them.

But “civility” is not merely something one shows to one’s like-minded friends. Civility is most needed precisely when the differences are likely to be greatest. A dialogue only with those who share one’s own views isn’t really a dialogue; it’s a shared monologue. And what one misses in such discussions is the possibility of correcting one’s own short-sightedness, and the weakness of one’s own presuppositions that those who share one’s own view are most likely to miss.

Properly Ordered Public Discourse: Logic, Rhetoric, and Socratic Dialogue

Those of us who have not lost faith entirely in the liberal ideal of democratic governance, who recognize that our postmodern “language games” are employed mostly by the members of a wealthy bourgeois-bohemian class in America, and who are doubtful they serve the best interests of the poor, should be working toward renewing an educational program that fosters the skills necessary for ordered and meaningful public discourse of the sort needed for authentic democratic governance.

It has become clear, for example, that we are suffering the tragic results of having cut logic and rhetoric from the standard college curriculum. When I say “logic,” I’m not talking about modern “symbolic logic,” which was an attempt to replace ordinary language with mathematical symbols. Nor am I talking about that diffuse, abstract thing called “critical thinking.” We need the logic of ordinary language.

And then we need our students to understand the nature and character, the strengths and weaknesses, of classical rhetoric. We need them to distinguish good arguments from bad, valid inferences from invalid, and we need them to recognize various rhetorical appeals and appreciate them for what they are or discount them for what they are not. A critical mass of the citizenry must once more come to recognize basic argumentative fallacies, value logical consistency, and prize the fine art of Socratic dialogue.

Intellectual Humility, not Moral Relativism

We should want to be questioned by others, the way Socrates and his compatriots questioned one another repeatedly—about the strength of our arguments, about the ways in which we are using our words, and about our presuppositions. There is no doubt that “such waltzing is not easy,” to borrow a line from the poet Theodore Roethke. It can only be achieved by instilling in our students a love of the truth and the intellectual humility necessary for fruitful argument.

We are all limited. We all have presuppositions, many of them unexamined. And we can rarely predict the full scope of the consequences any of our proposals will have. This is why engaging with others is not only helpful, it is essential. And yet, to engage with others fruitfully, we cannot begin by dismissing them as unworthy of our rational attention.

We would be better off recognizing that what so often happens with all our proposals, no matter which side of the ideological divide we are on, is that we see clearly the good we want to achieve. What we don’t see as clearly, given the finite character of human imagination and our inability to see all the consequences of our actions, are the trade-offs and unintended consequences we don’t intend. This is where our intellectual sparring partners could do us a great service, if we let them, and if we could approach each other in good will. They may see precisely the problems that our own elaborate intellectual constructions are hiding from us.

So instead of merely “unmasking” the “hypocrisy” of others, what we should be cultivating self-awareness about are the potential weaknesses and limitations of our own proposals. This sort of humility differs from the moral relativism that tries to insist my position is no better or more true than anyone else’s. That attitude merely exacerbates the postmodern obsession with unmasking.

Non-Judgmentalism, Furious Indignation, and Ironic Detachment

My experience with students is that as much as they say that no position is any more true than any other, they are no more willing to tolerate things they consider “unfair” or “unjust” than those who profess a belief in objective moral truth. Their insistence that things be done “right,” absent any defensible account of “rightness,” merely confirms in them the conviction that all such demands are merely expressions of a person’s will or desire. Having systematically insulated themselves from every kind of rational argument, the result is that not only can they never lose an argument, they also can never win.

College students often have only two gears when it comes to public discourse: “non-judgmentalism” and “furious indignation.” In one gear, they proclaim endlessly that “this is just what I think,” that they “don’t want to judge anyone else” and that they “don’t want to tell anyone else what to do.” And yet when they come upon some activity or expression they find unacceptable—usually something they have been taught to view as a sign of an unacceptable prejudice or bias—their response is loud and furious: a shrill protest of indignation.

The more students dismiss the resources of critical reason, the less faith they have in reasoned judgments. The less faith they have in reasoned judgments, the more likely they are to assume every decision they find offensive is based on ill will or gross stupidity, and the more indignant they are likely to be in their condemnations. The louder and more intractable the disputes between parties, the more those with less stomach for the fight will withdraw into postmodernism’s “ironic detachment”: the shrug of the shoulders and the ubiquitous “whatever.”

Allowing an ideological simulacrum of rational argument to continue to dominate public discourse—with its shrill assertion of self-righteous indignation, the “unmasking” of one’s ideological opponents, and the ironic detachment of those who have “seen through” the whole illusion—will only destroy the possibility of a discussion that, with patience and good will, could be mutually illuminating.

Living in Truth

Vaclav Havel’s answer to the problem posed by the post-totalitarian system of ideological control was what he described as “living in the truth.” The struggle had to begin by calling things by their right name and by telling the plain, simple truth. This too is where it must begin with us.

But if we are to live in the truth, we must first strive to know the truth. Not just my truth or the truths thrown around by my side or the right sort of people, but the truth. And there is usually no better way of getting at the truth than by testing one’s arguments against the very best arguments of one’s opponents.

I often wonder at people who set up a straw man only to knock it over and then declare victory. How much better to have faced your opponent at his strongest and to have convinced him by the wisdom of your arguments and your witness to the truth of your position. It is perhaps better still to have learned from him the places where your own argument was weak. Best of all would be for both to have guided one another a step closer to the truth of things.

“Compromise” need not be a dirty word. It should involve the effort to search out what are the deepest and most important goods that one’s opponent is seeking. Compromise can be the art of seeing whether the goods that my opponent is seeking and the goods I am seeking can be reconciled and preserved, if not fully, then at least partially.

To live in truth, we have to want the truth. And that means we will have to pay closer attention to reality and to actual, living persons than to our desire to signal our allegiance to the empty slogans and labels of contemporary partisan ideology.

If we want things like “peace” and “justice,” then these words had better stop being mere slogans we use to beat our opponents over the head with. “Peace” and “justice” begin with us and how we treat our opponents. To find them, we must achieve what the poet Wilfred Owen called “the tenderness of patient minds,” and resolve to listen carefully, judge fairly, and speak charitably, especially about those with whom we disagree.

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

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