On the need for charity when discussing differences: a response to Dr. Crider

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Photo by Patrick Vitale

I wrote in the Dallas Morning News in July that universities have a crucial role to play in society, especially in tumultuous times, for they teach us how to converse charitably with those of other viewpoints:

“Universities foster the discipline necessary for realizing truth-seeking in a world that sorely needs it. Before attacking, understand. Before understanding, commune. From out of a shared humanity and a shared quest, rational discourse can arise: articulate principles, attend to evidence and mutually acknowledge not only insight but also ignorance.”

Dr. Matthew Walz wrote a column for the University News in which he presented the love of friendship as affording the proper space for fellow university students to discuss important topics like race. Dr. Scott Crider wrote a response, which fulfilled many, but not all, of the following requirements of the principle of charity.

1. Charity means we criticize ideas rather than the person, which is called the ad hominem fallacy. It is incredible how difficult it is to do this, especially since we are immersed in a national political conversation in which all attacks are personal. (This means that in a rational conversation we shouldn’t take it personally if someone disagrees with us, even when it is a topic we hold dear.) Crider’s response did this admirably.

2. Charity means we discuss ideas calmly and without rancor. While rhetoric has an important role to play in political life, it is out of place in rational conversation. Our goal is not to win converts to our side but instead to bring about mutual illumination of the truth. We attend to the evidence of principle and example, and we do not appeal to prejudice. Crider’s response did this admirably.

3. Charity is not a matter of maximizing sameness of belief, so that we always interpret whatever someone says as though it were no different from what we already believe. Rather, charity is a matter of maximizing intelligibility. We operate under the assumption that our interlocutors are rational beings and that they may very well know something we may not. Hence, we engage their position by carefully considering what they say and imagining the framework in which their beliefs would be compelling. Crider’s response did this admirably.

4. Charity is marked by gratitude and fellowship. Aristotle says in the second book of the Metaphysics that we need to give thanks to those that disagree with us, even those that have stated very superficial views, for they contribute to our understanding by provoking us to think. Without encountering skeptics and agnostics, we are unlikely to work out an account of why we believe what we believe. We therefore should appreciate, not only those from whom we learn but also those from whom we don’t, for they too have helped us on the way to truth. Crider’s response did this admirably.

5. Charity means we are faithful in representing the views we are criticizing. One can often read a brilliant takedown that suffers from only one defect: it lays waste to a view that the opponent did not espouse. For example, “Here are 100 reasons why Catholics should not worship Mary.” We call this the “straw man” fallacy, because instead of addressing the actual position of our intellectual opponent, we criticize a caricature. The problem is that the audience becomes misinformed of the nature of our opponent’s position. In this respect, Crider’s response fell short of the mark.

While the response did not criticize the thinker but the thought, and it did so calmly and with evident effort to present the view it was criticizing as thoughtful, it failed to meet one of the essential requirements of charity: it attacked a position other than Walz’s own and therefore committed the “straw man” fallacy. I very much doubt it was intentional, but unfortunately it still gives all of Crider’s readers the wrong impression.

At no point did Walz suggest we ought not talk about race or difference and instead engage in a myopic focus on sameness. Instead, Walz said we need to focus our energies on the how of such conversations about our differences, the means by which we conduct them.

The thought is that such conversations at UD should reject an “us-versus-them” mentality, the sort that abounds in politics and social media, and instead should take place in a “we-together” framework. Call this togetherness “friendship” between individuals and “solidarity” among members of a community.

Only through friendship and solidarity, the kind of relations that should define university life, can we profitably converse with one another about our differences, and do so in charity.

The character of such love dictates that we should not put people in boxes or let them disappear behind labels, which does not mean, of course, that we ignore these differences or do not talk about them. Rather, how we talk to each other about our differences should be different because of our friendship and charity for each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr., expresses the same personalist philosophy when he writes: “This call for a universal fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all people.”

Love is not totalizing. It affords a communion that accommodates and celebrates differences while likewise accommodating the shared nature that unites us.

If this ideal is an expression of what Crider calls “premature universalism,” then we should all be premature universalists. Universities, not to mention civil life, won’t survive otherwise.

I thank Dr. Walz for making the point so thoughtfully, and Dr. Crider for calling it to our attention again.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate Professor Chad Engelland’s gracious response to my discussion of friendship and difference at the University, in which he argued that I failed to represent Professor Walz’s position fairly. I could not agree more that we need to represent one another’s positions accurately during discussion to establish precisely what the issue under discussion is before making any progress in dialectic.

    According to Professor Engelland, I misrepresented Professor Walz’s argument: “At no point did Walz suggest we ought not talk about race or difference and instead engage in a myopic focus on sameness. Instead, Walz said we need to focus our energies on the how of such conversations about our differences, the means by which we conduct them.”

    It is messy business to establish the issue of a discussion since a position may not be clear enough in the first place, or one may not understand it fully. Walz did write quite clearly that he was not saying we should pretend to be color-blind, and I misrepresented that statement. That was simply a mistake, and I am grateful to acknowledge it. But Engelland writes that when Walz argues that, “as a friendship-based community, we must be wary of either concentrating on such features [such as race] or categorizing persons according to such features [since doing so] would diminish our community’s potential for developing and sustaining friendships,” Walz was not saying that we should avoid discussions of race for fear of ruining UD’s culture of friendship, but saying only that we should be careful how we discuss it. There, readers of The University News can decide for themselves whether that was the drift of Walz’s piece. But, if that is what he meant to suggest, I did certainly misunderstand him, so I accept Professor Engelland’s reading of Professor Walz’s case, and I stand corrected. It turns out we are in much greater agreement than I realized, even if our emphases differ.

    Whatever its relationship to Walz’s case, though, I stand by my challenge to us all to be better (through the intellectual and the moral virtues) in response to differences from the presumed “norms” of UD culture, and to beware premature universalism, which is quite different than the “universal fellowship” Dr. King hoped for.

    May I ask, though, that the distinction between a topic of discussion and the means of discussing a topic not be used as a distinction without a difference? After all, in the letter to UD’s Student Government, the distinction looked to me questionable in practice since one of the words said to be toxic to discussions of race was . . . “race.” If discussants are now being asked only to be reasonable and charitable as we discuss race—and the other forms of difference I mentioned in my piece—then I wholeheartedly agree and am grateful to be called out for failing either measure.

    But let that be old news. I propose that we establish now, for the record as a faculty as a whole, that the topic of race and racism at UD—and other forms of difference and discrimination against them—is a legitimate one, and that we need only be reasonable and charitable. If we are agreed upon that, it is indeed dialectical progress. I thank both Professor Walz for supporting the discussion of difference and Professor Engelland for pointing out my misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

    Now, as a united faculty, I hope, we can support the newly approved student club on race, if I may use the word.

  2. First, I would like to thank Professor Crider for his thoughtful reply, and I would like to express some regret for having not clarified that my invocation of charity referred to the natural virtue that philosophers of language and personalists routinely discuss as the condition for the possibility of dialogue. It is different from the theological virtue. I’d also mention that charity is a demand that we must shoot for but not grow discouraged that we never quite attain. So I should have been clearer about the scope and applicability of my remarks.

    Second, as one of those faculty members that initially suggested to the advisor and the students wishing to form the club that they could allay the concern about polarization were they to make their aim fostering racial solidarity, I can wholeheartedly agree with Professor Crider that a club devoted to that end is in keeping with the requirements of reason and the principle of charity and will set the stage for many productive campus conversations.

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