Friendly Fire: Live and Let Dialogue, Part II: Whether to ?make change? or to restore the liberal arts, we must cut through relativistic dialogue

Posted by Brendan James

*Editor's Note: While I certainly do not renounce the content of any of my remarks, whether spoken or in print, I do apologize to any who perceived the delivery of my remarks at the campus dialogue, "Interrupting Silence," as intentionally offensive. Once more, anyone who wishes to respond to the arguments of this column may write a Letter to the Editor at skidnews@skidmore.edu.

Perhaps it is characteristic of a two-part critique that anything argued in the first half, left to sit, will reek of negativity – so much that readers pinch their noses and turn away from the subsequent, more constructive serving. I can only hope that this is not the case in my two-tiered argument against propping up dialogue as the reigning form of campus discourse.

While last week's critical remarks on our "culture of dialogue" were a necessary throat clearing, I will offer here the positive alternative: a restoration of dispassionate, critical and reasoned argument. We need it here, in some form. Reappraising argument would not only push back against the relativistic, emotion-laden trend of dialogue here at Skidmore but also reequip us with the essential tools for a liberal arts education.

Why is such a push back necessary? First, we have plainly reached a point in which much of our student body views personal narratives as infallible and invariably permissible modes of argument. To a degree, Skidmore cultivates this: in various Scribner Seminars, students come to see their educational experiences as pathways to "awareness," and diversity in higher education becomes a central and apocalyptic matter. In many cases this disposition will fully calcify by a student's junior or senior year.

The construal of education as a liberating social "awareness" invariably entails a rebellion against the "traditional" approach to academics. Argument, properly understood, is revealed as authoritarian and close-minded; classical liberal values are parsed as nothing more than expressions of power by society/the ruling class/men/the Illuminati. Many students and faculty claim to have unmasked this awful facade and view the crumbling of objectivity – of "truth" – as emancipation. By undercutting the universal validity of argument, we are supposed to be opening the doors to multiculturalism and tolerance – where everyone's story matters, all the time. Dialogue is born, and Skidmore thereby earns its place among the echelons of tolerant and responsible colleges.

But really, in undercutting argument we kill any potential for real rigorous and constructive deliberation – the hallmark of both liberal democracy and certainly liberal education. Now, persuasion, rather than the "force" of argument, becomes the way we settle conversations on everything from race relations to AOD policy. Truth is forever ensnared in sneer quotes in order to protect our sensibilities from any of its harsh lacerations.

And so as dialectic slips away, so does our original understanding of tolerance and pluralism. It becomes a given tenet of mutual respect that no one be proven essentially and demonstrably wrong on any issue, for that would be attacking one's personal life and one's narrative. Thus, for fear of committing this or any form of soft oppression, everyone adopts a vocabulary that keeps out the "bigots." As things stand, the proper response to someone who questions the dogma of dialogue is to simply accuse that person of being divisive, "privileged," bigoted or even flat out racist. (It is similar to how Marxists used to label someone a "hyena" and call it a day; or how McCarthyites would dismiss someone as "pinko," with no further need for discussion.)

In other words, there is no need to engage with any argument put forth against a proposition, because the person advancing it must be a lousy chauvinist! Don't waste your time! Here at Skidmore I have heard arguments against IGR courses described as "discrimination." The critic or skeptic who hurts the sensibilities of dialogue/diversity program-enthusiasts is said to have created a new "minority" on campus. On and on, faster and faster, the definitions of once meaningful words swirl down the drain.

This is a dangerous point to have reached, where such serious (though sometimes meaningless) charges are hurled at those who merely doubt the sensibility of certain diversity initiatives or perhaps the project of hard multiculturalism more generally. But the beauty of it all is that this project steeps us in such relativism that at a certain point, there really is no way to claw out of it through sharp, clear deliberation and critique. The sacred cow this protects, above all others, is of course the institution of dialogue.

Some may find me here to be guilty of the same alarmism I ascribe to the other side.  How does any of this relativism, perhaps desirable in private sessions on marginalization and narrative, infect other corners of life at Skidmore?

Allow me to provide just a recent example: last week, at an event titled "Faces of Israel," a panel of Israeli academics and activists shared their experiences and perspectives on life in the Levant. I did not attend the event, but I noticed that promotion promised the speakers would "engage" with students "without shying away from the complex political and cultural issues Israel faces." Many students went along to the event, took this line at face value, and brought with them some complex questions.

However, several attendees approached me afterward, utterly frustrated by the proceedings. A few had tried to dig deeper into the aforementioned "complex issues" of the conflict. Their questions were dismissed, evaded again and again through more personal narratives. Any attempts to argue about international law, civil disobedience – that stubbornly objective idea, justice – were dismissed.

And so, despite the event's promotion, another uncritical episode of narratives took the place of what could have been a lively and relevant exchange of ideas. Once we sanctify this approach on the level of "bias responses" and the like, it does in fact creep into what should be the more rigorous academic sphere.

I ended my last piece with a cautious suggestion: if the methods and principles of dialoguing continue to be construed as the most legitimate (and thereby exclusive) mode of discussion at Skidmore, it will impose a very conspicuous silence. I'll end this piece with a slight adjustment: a more appropriate description would be a "white noise," where words ("oppression," "privilege," etc.) are spoken but devoid of meaning; where the majority roars over the voices of skeptics, labeling them intolerant; where emotion and sentimentality erode every discussion, dissolving logic and reason.

This is not a portrait of the liberal arts, no matter how subtly it is brushed over the original picture. I am advocating, in any shape, a concrete push for a newfound pulse of debate and intellectual probity on campus. It might arrive through the return of the debate team, a resurgence of the sparring matches between Skidmore Republicans and Democrats, within the pages of this Op-Ed section — or even through the panel I have been organizing with SGA and Fight Club.

Did anyone see that coming? Perhaps conflict and contention can bring us closer together, after all.

Letter: We need to talk

Blurbs Overheard! Mar. 5