The beauty of argument
I gave an informal talk the other night and got a very odd reaction. I was speaking at a small dinner--16 people--of a cultural group here in New York. My topic was the sometimes-demented culture of American universities. I talked about the repressive speech codes, stolen newspapers, canceled speakers; the defunded Christian groups; the distortion of the curriculum by powerful diversity bureaucracies; and the indoctrination of students, starting with freshman orientation and introductory writing courses.
Nothing in my remarks would have come as a surprise to readers of this column, and it turned out that maybe two thirds of the people at the dinner strongly agreed with my talk. But it shocked one man--a former university president of some note--who denounced my comments as "the most intellectually dishonest speech I have ever heard." I think he meant to say that he disagreed. Or maybe he thought I was attacking his old university. Nobody knows what he thought because he just repeated his "intellectually dishonest" remark and left, closing the door quickly behind him.
This will stick in my mind as a good example of what has happened to debate in this country. Given a chance to speak his piece, the college president just got mad and got out. It never used to be this way. As many reporters reminded us last week, Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan fought sharply during the day but enjoyed having the occasional drink or two together after work. In the old days, William F. Buckley Jr. would hold public debates with all comers (I recall Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Steve Allen), then go out to a pleasant dinner with his opponent. Nowadays, Buckley or his adversary would probably be required to take umbrage, hurl some insult, then stomp out in a snit. I caught the tail end of the civil-argument culture when Garry Wills and I started out many years ago as the original columnists in the National Catholic Reporter. We would frequently attack each other's ideas, but it never affected our friendship. Why should it?
In the current Atlantic, P. J. O'Rourke says that, "Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone." O'Rourke doesn't pay much attention, he says, to talk radio, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Al Franken, or Michael Moore because they just shout things at partisan audiences that already agree with their chosen shouter. Technology reinforces the decline of serious argument--now we can all go to a TV channel, a radio show, or a website that will protect us from those aliens across the moat who disagree with us.
It's true that we have more semistructured Crossfire -style debates than ever before. But much of this is rigidly preprogrammed sniping. (I was once chastised by a TV producer for not interrupting other speakers more. What a failure!) Even when the sniping is downplayed, TV demands sharp sound bites, which pushes all talking heads toward more vehemence and simple-mindedness. Instant certainty becomes mandatory, a delivery style many talking heads start to regret before they're even out of the studio. Where is the real debate?
Listening--and learning. In my remarks at the dinner, I talked about the birth of a "no debate" style on many campuses. When sensitivity and nonjudgmentalism are the dominant virtues, raising arguments can be perilous--you never know which unauthorized campus opinion will turn out to be a sensitivity violation. Better to keep your head down. This is particularly true now that some speech codes explicitly say that challenging another student's beliefs is forbidden.
This is yet another perverse campus trend. Arguing is crucial to education. It's a kind of intellectual roughhouse that lets students try out new ideas. E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, sometimes tells his class at Georgetown that he intends to support the argument of whichever group in the class is in the minority. He does this because he wants his students to argue as passionately as possible without fear of intimidation by a dominant group.
In his book The Revolt of the Elites, the late Christopher Lasch wrote that only in the course of argument do "we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn . . . we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others." If we wish to be engaged in serious argument, Lasch explained, we must enter into another person's mental universe and put our own ideas at risk. Exactly. When a friend launches an argument and your rebuttal starts to sound tinny to your own ears, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out that something's wrong--usually, that you don't really agree with the words coming out of your own mouth. Arguing can rescue us from our own half-formed opinions.
This story appears in the June 21, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.