Say What You Mean: The Value of Defining the Terms of Argument

Politicians and pundits often talk about the need to have a “national conversation” about this or that important issue, often at some metaphorical table that we are all supposed to gather around. While this rhetoric might sound constructive and diplomatic, it does little in the way of materializing any kind of productive dialogue.

The problem isn’t that this suggestion is not a good idea in principle, or that people who suggest this sort of thing don’t have good intentions. Rather, the problem is that people who make such suggestions are often divorced from the complex reality that gives rise to the equally complex issues they produce – issues which can’t be solved with simplistic platitudes about human solidarity and brotherhood.

The reality is that bringing people together to discuss anything requires a negotiation of terms, and without an agreement to those terms, there can be no discussion. It’s not that people don’t want to have a discussion in which they can be heard and understood, it’s just that people often can’t agree on the how that discussion should take place.

In order to have a discussion, we not only need to agree on the issue we choose to discuss, but also need to agree on the definitions of words used well as the medium and venue for that discussion. We also need to determine what conventions are appropriate, what procedures or methods are best suited for discussion, and need to decide what the goals of that discussion should be.

Only when we have gotten beyond agreeing to these basic terms of argument can we then entertain disagreements about the history or relevance of the issue, present our various understandings and interpretations of that issue, and debate about possible solutions.

The problem, it seems, is that we are trying to jump to the conflict resolution stage of discussion without having bothered to agree to the terms. If I and the person I am arguing with both agree that racism is bad, but can’t agree on what constitutes racism, we can’t have a productive dialogue about it.

However, even assuming that we both agree that racism is bad and agree on its definition, suppose we don’t agree on what conventions are appropriate. After all, the fact that I think shouting and name-calling are appropriate tools for getting my point across might be at odds with while my opponent, who thinks shouting and name-calling should be ignored as a matter of principle.

Simply put, if we can’t agree to the basic terms of discussion, we might as well be living on different planets. Whether we are talking about white privilege, racism, feminism, gun control, or safe spaces, we need to first establish a consensus before thinking about solutions to problems. By failing to do so, we risk talking past each other and discussing issues that are not rooted in the reality of our world.

For me, the apparent debate surrounding “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” is one such example of a failure to clearly establish the terms of discussion. In my view, there not only seem to be two distinctive camps on these issues, but also two very different definitions of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as concepts.

While one side defines “safe spaces” as places where one should be sheltered from all opposing ideas that might make one uncomfortable, others define “safe spaces” as places where one should be free from hatred, harassment, and bigotry which might make one feel unsafe. Similarly, while one camp defines “trigger warnings” as a means of censorship which excuses people from dealing with information that makes them uncomfortable, the other camp defines “trigger warnings” as simply a way of giving people a heads-up about information content that might end up triggering traumatic experiences.

Ironically, one has to wonder that if these terms were clearly defined, if there would be any real argument in the first place. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to avoid these highly-politicized words altogether so that we can better address the ideas behind them more objectively. At any rate, I will first try to explain my own position on the subject as clearly as possible, as well as the terms I am using.

As a college instructor, I know that I want my students to feel safe in the classroom – safe from hatred, bigotry, and harassment of any kind. However, I also want to make them uncomfortable by challenging them with information that is unfamiliar to them, and which might conflict with their worldview, preconceived ideas, and deeply-held convictions.

Similarly, while I also recognize the value of disclaimers to let my students know about information that might trigger traumatic experiences or provide such students with alternative options, I would never excuse a student from participating in a perfectly civil discussion of religion just because they were an atheist or because disliked the concept of “sin.”

As long as nobody is expressing hatred, bigotry, or inciting harassment or violence, then it stands to reason that censorship is unwarranted. As long as nobody is using disclaimers as a way to absolve themselves from academic responsibility, then such warnings seem completely justified.

However, the moment one begins to acquiesce to hateful and bigoted attitudes and perspectives, censorship is necessary. Likewise, the moment one abuses a disclaimer about potentially traumatic information is used as an excuse to forego critical thought and reinforce ignorance, such disclaimers become anti-educational.

Therefore, while I am saddened by the anti-educational choices universities have made to dis-invite speakers who express different opinions as a means of protecting the delicate sensibilities of students, I am equally saddened by the choices of other universities to open the door to hatred and bigotry on campus by validating hateful and bigoted perspectives under the guise of freedom of speech.

Having said that, I must now return again to the definitions of words, and thus the terms of agreement. What exactly constitutes “hate speech”? What does it mean to be a “bigot,” a “racist,” or a “sexist”? Only by agreeing to the terms can we hope to move forward as a society.

Given the usefulness of human logic, the evolving nature of language, and the fact that different people experience the world differently, we can’t solely rely on “common sense” to tell us the answer to these questions. Instead, we must look at things on a case-by-case basis while keeping the above factors in mind.

Still, as a general rule, I tend to view any words or actions which intentionally or unintentionally go beyond the bounds of civil discourse in order to attack or call into question another person’s human dignity as a working definition of “hate speech.” However, in order to make my meaning clear, allow me give a concrete example of what I see as the difference between “hate speech” and merely uncomfortable speech.

For example, suppose a gay student in my class claimed that the discussion of the concept of “sin” in a discussion of religion was inherently hateful because he or she is gay. Furthermore, suppose that another student argued that homosexuality itself was a sin during that discussion. Do the gay student’s feelings warrant a censorship of the religious person’s opinion because the gay student feels attacked in some way?

Personally, my answer is “no.” My answer is no because (a) the discussion is civil, (b) it leaves the door open for disagreement so that learning can be had at both ends, and (c) it doesn’t invite hatred or demonization – only strong disagreement about what constitutes sin.

On the other hand, if the same religious student that expressed that homosexuality was sinful also said that gay people deserve to die, or that gay people are inherently bad people that don’t deserve respect, my answer would be a resounding and emphatic “yes.” My answer is yes because the discussion is (a) no longer civil (b), closes the door to learning on both ends, and (c) invites hatred and demonization of gay people.

Unfortunately, without analyzing and evaluating difficult situations in this case-by-case manner, both teachers and universities – despite their good intentions – can end up alienating students from one another, and from realizing a richer, more complex view of the world.

By making the mistake of allowing free speech to encompass anything and everything on campus, education is undermined because students do not feel safe enough for discussion to be had. By making the mistake of protecting students from viewpoints that challenge them and make them uncomfortable, education is also undermined.

Only by establishing a clear consensus about the terms and conditions for argument between students – and between the citizens that make up larger society – can productive dialogue begin to take place. Without negotiating, defining, and agreeing to the terms of argument, we will continue to misunderstand and talk past one another other, passing up valuable opportunities for learning.

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