These days, department events and grad student cook-outs are an extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay” collegiality in which our differences remain as muted as possible. At a recent one, one student—after complaining that many contemporary poems about motherhood felt like “Luna Bar feminism” to him—wandered back into the conversation a few minutes later to make sure no one thought that he was “beating up on motherhood” because he certainly didn’t want to cause offense. There are countless other examples of the litany of caveats, disclaimers, and clarifications that bookend most everything we say to ensure that no one—at any moment—thinks that we really, meaningfully disagree with them. The closest to real disagreement that you’ll witness happens when everyone in the group discovers a shared strawman argument that we can all pummel without offense to anyone at the party—all the joys of loud disagreement without any of the unpleasantness of having to actually engage with anyone.
Yet as much as I am frustrated with our collective cultural refusal to take ideas seriously, I still find myself doing the same song-and-dance as all my colleagues whenever I’m at a function and even when I’m just out with my friends. In my case, the reason for this is relatively simple but also quite difficult to overcome. Growing up, especially during my adolescence, disagreement meant anger and my father could always win the angriest-in-the-room contest, which equalled winning the argument. Thus, I still back away from conflict because it makes me feel emotionally unsafe. At the same time, I think this is why I so greatly appreciate the few people that I can comfortably argue with and know that I’ll still have as friends at the end of it all. For instance, I’ve got a friend of the New Atheist stripe who loves to argue. Interestingly, our arguments are usually less about atheism v. Christianity and more about whether the New Atheism is the *best* form of atheism or not (I contend that there are far more interesting and rigorous forms). Our arguments usually terrify anyone out with us—since we all seem to share this collective anxiety about conflict—but at the end of the night I always feel like I gained access to something that’s sorely missing from most of my life: sincere, passionate, and honest disagreement with a friend. That liberating feeling of being able to call someone—and be called in return— “heretic.”
Spot on. I find it far more heartening when someone tells me that my worldview is wrong than when I hear some empty platitude along the lines of, “well I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you.” The sort of indifference embodied in the latter case is very frightening.
A side note: one of the things I’ve noticed about modern philosophy (in the academic sense) is that while we’re very willing to disagree with each other over how demonstratives refer to things, or about modal logic, because we’re not fighting for our lives, so to speak. I had few professors who were willing to bridge the gap and get me to think about how a particular issue might actually put some of my own deeply cherished beliefs on trial. Elizabeth Anscombe has essay somewhere where she argues the ironic point that modern philosophy is incapable of corrupting the youth, because it simply confirms the corrupt beliefs they already have.
Still, one of the things I appreciate about my undergraduate experiences was how they gradually taught me to approach various philosophies as things which made a claim on how I should think about the world and live my life, as opposed to aesthetic trinkets to be toyed around with or perhaps worn for the shock appeal.