October 24, 2006

Let's learn to take each other seriously

The “golden rule” of theory testing, according to international relations scholar Joseph Grieco, is to be hard on your own approach and easy on alternatives. No academic paper—in any discipline—can make an impact on or contribute to a serious debate unless it grapples with the best arguments that can be used against it.

That is a wise principle that we can and should apply more widely. America’s political discourse has reached its usual pre-election low, and partisans on every side are hurling silly insults and deploying content-free slogans to avoid the trouble of proposing specific solutions. Browse political blogs or listen to any candidate’s attack ads, and you will find straw men at every turn.

We should hold the politicians we listen to and the writers we read to a higher standard, but we can begin with ourselves. When we write or debate, are we truly being hard on our own approaches and easy on others? Are we giving those we disagree with the benefit of the doubt and engaging their arguments on their own turf? All too often, a “debate” boils down to two individuals speaking and never listening, the goal being to “win” rather than to further knowledge and find common ground.

If the academy consistently worked that way, there would be little point to all the paper presentations, issue symposiums, and journal articles that make up life in the university. Sometimes, however, debates are approached with humility, the quality of discussion is high, and participants can improve their knowledge and understanding of the issue at hand. These are the debates that move us forward.

Politics and religion are the two most volatile areas in public discourse, the two realms most likely to cause discomfort, raise emotions, and stoke tempers. In politics and religion, therefore, the principle of Socratic humility is both more difficult to attain and more important to strive for. It is all too easy for the religious to treat nonbelievers as morally relativistic, permissive, and materialistic, and for nonbelievers to treat the religious as deluded, backward, and trapped in a fantasy world of fairy tales and lies.

We are surrounded every day by intellectual and personal diversity, and students of the university should make it a point of pride to speak of other people’s beliefs with respect and avoid assuming that those who disagree with them do so because they are less enlightened. It is safe to say that no popular belief is so silly that it has not been held and promoted by some very capable thinkers and writers. Before you are tempted to write off someone’s argument as absurd, listen awhile and struggle with the best of what they have to say.