catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 18 :: 2008.10.10 — 2008.10.24


The tenor of a mind

As a teacher, I rarely concern myself with changing my students’ beliefs.  Instead, I work to help them form the habits of mind that make change possible.  Specifically, I work to help them master the art of conversation, an exchange of ideas demanding careful attention and exact expression and arising from any medium that implies a speaker and an audience.  If entered honestly, conversation places them at the risk of challenge and makes room for them to challenge others.  In my classroom, I nurture conversation because I think it nurtures relationship, especially friendship.

I separate conversation from debate in that I see conversation as a means of inquiry whereas debate tends toward a positional defense-much like an army guarding its territory.  The boundaries drawn, the borders enforced, those who assail are enemies.  The debater seeks, above all, a defense so rigorous that he is impervious to challenge.  Conversation, though, requires that we be vulnerable.  The conversationalist asks to be questioned and probed.   I am, of course, describing states of mind more than methods.  It is quite possible that those engaged in the discourse of debate still have the openness of conversation. Likewise, those holding what outwardly looks like a conversation may really be locked in an intractable debate.

Nonetheless, there remain important differences. The debater faces an opponent, the conversationalist a partner.  In a debate someone wins and someone looses.  The debater (at least for the duration of the debate) must not change his mind for then he has admitted defeat.  Present in such debates is the kind of competition that requires a loser.  It is a form of human relating in which I profess a diminishing confidence.

It’s quite human to honor those strong men and women who cannot be budged from their beliefs.  Protestant Christians admire Luther for his immovable conviction. That resonate declaration-Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise-demands from us the respect due a sturdy and truthful soul.  To list comprehensively other such souls would require a book, but in the last one hundred years men like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and women like Rosa Parks have shown us the power of conviction.  Yet we should remember that these people had to stand with such rigor because the powers they challenged would brook no real conversation.  They were uninterested in discussion; they had something to protect.

We should also not forget how quickly rigor became rigor mortis.  Luther was as petulant, irascible and unassailable in some of his convictions as had been the medieval church which he challenged.  Regarding the Jewish people and the sacrament of baptism, he allowed the defense of his beliefs to destroy his relationship with the Jewish communities and with other Protestant groups. The deaths that can be at least partially traced to this stubbornness have left a dark blot on the history of the Church.

In politics, as in religion, this crippling defensiveness has led to hopeless and ugly splits among political parties.  What should be a conversation about the common good and the public expression of common virtues has become a contest for power, loser be damned.  It is practiced by all our major political parties and appears in the partisan blame games that sully every national crisis.  Such ideological rigor has created a stilted and sour public discourse.

The trouble arises when we become defensive of our beliefs.  We change those who think differently into opponents-from there it is all too easy to see them as enemies. Still, I am not suggesting we embrace a vague, flabby open-mindedness in which all beliefs, convictions and truths are sacrificed to pleasant feelings of unity.  Such unity would be an illusion, a surface harmony that belied the tension underneath.  Nor could it nurture relationship, for, argues Robert Bolt, we would have given up our very selves.  Indeed, only if we maintain our integrity by truthful adherence to our beliefs can we have a meaningful conversation.

I remember one such conversation with my grandmother when I was about fourteen years old.  The son of a Baptist minister, I fancied myself theologically sophisticated.  From someone, I had imbibed the notion that everything which happens, happens according to God’s will.  From this, I concluded that cancer sufferers, victims of natural disaster, of war, of rape etc., were suffering by the will of God, that God, for some inscrutable reason, wanted them to suffer such things.  The theological terror of this notion escaped my adolescent mind but not my grandmother’s.  Bristling with indignation, she informed me that such horrors were unmitigated evils and were not God’s will nor ever could be, world without end, Amen.  I felt soundly chastened.  It was conversation, though, that made this chastening possible.  Though we were talking about God, though her response was full of passion, neither she nor I were defending any particular theological territory.  Her response arose from the integrity of her faith and prevented the further peddling of a stupid and ugly sentiment.  One more dark place in my mind was lighted. 

I do not mean to imply that truth can never emerge from debate, nor that formal debates have no place in the public discourse.  For an audience, a good debate can even stir an awakening.  But within so much of the public conversation, both religious and political (two realms whose boundaries are not so clearly demarcated in this country) debate has degenerated from the vigorous exchange of ideas which it could be, to a battle for power.  When a community, a city, or a nation are ranged as opponents on competing sides of an issue, when citizens are drawn into the play for power, it becomes far too easy for a neighbor to seem a nemesis.  If the politics of a country are couched in terms suitable to war, is it any surprise that those with whom we disagree perceive us as their enemies?

Finally, it is not fear of the truth that makes me suspicious of combative debate; it’s fear of falsehood.  Teaching literature has shown me that the candlelight of conversation will ferret out falsehood better than the walls of a rigid defense will protect the truth.  So I teach old books, plays, stories and poems that lay before us voices we might not otherwise hear.  If we read attentively, we make ourselves vulnerable to challenge, for nothing subverts the certainties of the present so powerfully as the voices of the past.  Immersed in these voices, we might discover wisdom to illuminate present problems.  As Thoreau noted, “There are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them.”  Careful attention to old books might also train our ears to hear those contemporary voices whose vision cuts sharply across our own, inviting us to see what we, perhaps, do not wish to see.  If we can hear these voices, let them challenge and sift our most cherished assumptions, if we can speak back, challenging and sifting theirs, we will have entered the realm of conversation.  With a bit of luck, we may discover a friend.

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