Friday, September 12, 2008

Debate, Dissent, and Dialogue: "You Are Wrong"

I attended a very interesting convo this morning for the Belmont 2008 Humanities Symposium where a panel of "scholars" (and I use the term lightly because I haven't studied their credentials personally) discussed the idea or concept of "Debate, Dissent, and Dialogue". And, as much as I overuse the word "interesting", it truly was just that... interesting. 
At the beginning of the discussion, Dr. Bonnie Smith posed the question "Can you think of a time in your life where you have changed your mind because of debate, dissent, and/or dialogue"?  The first man, Dr. Daniel Frick discussed his changing opinion over time of Richard Nixon. From a young age and all through his college years, Dr. Frick had an unquestioned hatred for Nixon and long story short came to understand that his feelings for Nixon were unwarrented, after much study he soon began to understand both Nixon and his policies. 
The second man, Dr. Masood Rajaa, a self proclaimed liberal elitist, discussed the purchase of his second car, or rather a car for his wife. While walking through the parking lot, Dr. Rajaa's wife decided that she wanted a SUV. Now, as Dr. Rajaa put it, he and his wife were earth loving hippies who "don't" drive SUVs. However, after discussing the issue with his wife he came to see her point of view and saw that her confidence as a driver was shaken and she needed a larger vehicle to feel safe, he relented his position and purchased the SUV.
The third man, Dr. Michael Berube discussed his previously liberal standpoint and his anti-Reagan thoughts about the cold war. Dr. Berube discussed that while he perviously felt that many of President Reagan's policies (moving to arms specifically) was a horrible idea, but after "a decade" he came to see the Reagan policies as "genius".
Interesting and all valid discussions.  
Further into the discussion the panelists were discussing the issue of empathy and the importance of seeing (and maybe not always agreeing with) another person's point of view.
Now, while discussing the idea of empathy, Dr. Rajaa asserted that during the second Town Hall Debate between John Kerry and President George Bush were asked a question about abortion to which President Bush said something about it being wrong, and Kerry stating that he thought it was morally wrong, but he wasn't willing to say that someone wasn't allowed to do it.
Based on this statement, Dr. Rajaa stated that this made Bush and anti-intellectual and Kerry and intellectual because of his ability to see something other than his own opinion.
After hearing this, I had to sit for quite a while to collect my thoughts, but then I got up the courage to ask this question:

"Let's say there is something you KNOW IS WRONG, where would you, or would you, draw the line of debating with an individual on an issue. For example, if there were a man in this room advocating a second Holocaust, how hard would you work to empathize with him? And if you can't empathize, does that make you an "Anti-Intellectual"?


I think Dr. Rajaa's absolute silence spoke volumes.


Michael Bérubé said...

Hello from Penn State! I was wondering if there would be any blog responses to the symposium, and I wanted to say a personal thank you for asking such a difficult and thoughtful question. I can't speak for Professor Raja, of course, but my sense was that he was silent in response because he thought the question was directed solely at me (after all, I'm the guy who brought up Andrew Sullivan's "what-about-Hitler" question the night before). But about this as about so much else, I could be wrong.

About the Kerry-Bush debate: Professor Raja's point, I think, was that Kerry's response was more nuanced than Bush's (who once famously said that he "doesn't do nuance"). But I think this is a common mistake many liberals make, and your question spoke to it quite well: there are times, are there not, when nuance is not a good thing. Many people feel that way about abortion, of course. And for his part, Sen. Kerry gave some simple, straightforward answers in that debate, as when he was asked what he thought was the gravest threat facing the world. "Nuclear proliferation," he replied, full stop. (Not "well, nuclear proliferation is important, but so is climate change and terrorism and debt and famine in developing nations.") Some liberals like to think all their positions are so morally complex that they can't possibly fit into sound bites, but really, this just isn't so.

Which reminds me: I didn't exactly say that Reagan's deployment of Pershing-2 missiles in West Germany was "genius." I still think it was a very risky business; but I was persuaded by Jeffrey Herf that there was a rationale behind it that didn't correspond to the caricature of Reagan as a reckless cowboy in international affairs. (Reagan's meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986 didn't correspond to that caricature, either -- just Google "reykjavik+reagan" and check out the Wikipedia entry on the summit.)

Again, thanks for your question -- and for your blog post! I hope you have a great semester ahead of you.

Nicole Jeannette said...

Dr. Berube,

Thank you for responding to my blog! I really appreciate that you took the time to do so! And thank you for your clarification about Reagan! I stand corrected :-) Sorry for the misquote.

I understand that the debate about abortion is about morality to some and not to others, and I loved your response during the discussion. I probably should have clarified that I wanted his opinion because I felt that he was saying that because Bush said that abortion was wrong (instead of saying "he thought it was wrong, but wouldn't stop others") it made him an anti-intellectual. And by association that would make me an anti-intellectual because I believe it is morally wrong just like I think murder is morally wrong. I just wondered where, or if at all, he felt that there was a line between being an intellectual and morality. To be honest, I've never heard a very liberal individual truly answer this question... so I honestly just wondered.

Again, thank you very much! I really appreciate you response! I was pleasantly surprised to see your comment!

Michael Bérubé said...

I felt that he was saying that because Bush said that abortion was wrong (instead of saying "he thought it was wrong, but wouldn't stop others") it made him an anti-intellectual.

And thanks for the reply, in turn! (I think dialogue like this, even via blogs, was one of the things the symposium was trying to foster.) I agree that the (unfortunate) implication of that Bush/Kerry comparison was that people who oppose abortion are not as "intellectual" or as morally nuanced as those who do not. And I understand that millions of people, yourself among them, consider abortion the equivalent of murder (since if life begins at conception, it involves taking a life). Still, I know that many people who believe abortion is murder will make exceptions in cases of rape and/or incest and/or when the life of the mother is threatened; and I know that many people want to ban abortion but do not want to prosecute women and their doctors for murder if they have illegal abortions. I think these, too, are morally nuanced positions, as is (in my example) the position of the orthodox Hasidim who ordinarily oppose abortion but make exceptions for fetuses with the genetic markers for Tay-Sachs disease. It's morally tricky territory all around, and you can find people with nuanced positions all over the map as a result.

And I hope you keep asking these questions -- especially when you deal with us very liberal folk. We may not agree, as I was saying Thursday night, but we can try to come to understand why we disagree and why other people believe what they believe. Best wishes for your future studies--