A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters. The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary. (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)
I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern. To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing. (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.) Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship. Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention. In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.
I am not bothered by competing moral visions. They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity. I am worried, rather, by the lack of self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation. That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.
This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated. I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages. To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.
We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect. What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence? This is a critical moral, educational question.
Which brings me back to the work of higher education. I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it. Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism. Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23). In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”
The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet. As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.
However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem. Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.