Friendship and difference at the University of Dallas

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Barnett Newman, The Stations of the Cross, Lema Sabachthani, Twelfth Station [detail], 1965

According to Socrates, the discernment of sameness and difference defines the philosophic enterprise. As Plato has him say in the Phaedrus, “Now I myself, Phaedrus, am a lover of these processes of division and bringing together, as aids to speech and thought; and if I think any other man is able to see things that can naturally be collected into one and divided into many, him I follow after and “walk in his footsteps as if he were a god,” but I have called him hitherto a dialectician” (266b-c).

Any topic under discussion needs to see sameness through definition and difference through division. For example, human beings might share an essential nature—as rational animals, perhaps—but still have differences, such as gender or sexuality or race or politics or nationality or religion. 

One can be a universalist while still maintaining that differences, while not essential logically, since they do not establish the essential differentia of the entity, do indeed matter, in and of themselves and in relation to historical and cultural facts about such differences. 

Indeed, if one too easily effaces those differences in a hasty desire to transcend them, one might be practicing premature universalism, in which many distinct differences in the dominant group are taken for universal attributes so that that group is the only “universal,” all others having to ignore their own difference or be silenced from speaking of it. 

There has arisen at the University of Dallas an argument that, in response to questions of race and racism here, the best response is to emphasize only sameness, some going so far as to demand that race be a taboo topic here, and that discussions of such difference will destroy our way of life as we know it.

So far, the strongest expression of the case comes from my colleague, Professor Walz, whose philosophical acumen I admire, and whose fine essay, “Friendship and UD,” suggests that discussions of race will harm the culture of friendship at our school: He concedes that, “[t]his does not entail that our relationships with one another have to be color-blind, sex-blind, disability-blind or the like, but it does entail that as a friendship-based community, we must be wary of either concentrating on such features or categorizing persons according to such features. Doing so would diminish not only those categorized, but even more those who categorize. This, in turn, would diminish our community’s potential for developing and sustaining friendships.”

I do not find the suggestion compelling, and I wonder if friendship whose prior agreement that some categories will simply not be recognized (though they objectively exist) and difference cannot be concentrated upon, I do wonder if such is actually friendship. My argument arises from experience and from reason.

For one thing, I have many friendships that transcend differences while acknowledging them. 

As a man, I do not expect my female friends to deny or censor their being women; as a straight man, I do not expect my gay and lesbian friends to deny or censor their being gay or lesbian; as a White man, I do not expect my friends of color to deny or censor their being people of color; as an American, I do not expect my friends from other countries to deny or censor their being Italian (for example); as an Independent, I do not expect my friends who are Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians to deny or censor their affiliation; as an agnostic student of Buddhism and Christianity, I do not expect my Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist friends to deny that about themselves.

Indeed, although we often share so many things to explore in common (maybe even more important things at times), listening to their thoughts and experiences—the same because of the unity of the human, but different because of the plurality of those attributes—and sharing my own are a crucial part of these friendships. 

To offer a mundane example, I don’t say that, because we all eat, my Vietnamese-American friend is never to discuss chopsticks; I learn about them, maybe even how to use them. Different cuisines and eating cultures are fascinating, and the dialectic about such enriches the friendship, which may be transpiring over a different, shared interest.

I am very fortunate in my friendships, but I must say that, if I limited my friend circle to those who share only my attributes, I wouldn’t have a single friend, and my life would be diminished beyond imagining. Of course, something must be shared—both common humanity (even if expressed differently) and some shared goods. At UD, for example, all differences aside, we share certain educational goods, as expressed in the Mission Statement.

Because I happen to be part of a number of groups that have historically dominated our culture, though—sorry, folks, that’s simply a fact—I naturally don’t always see premature universalism as premature, my friends needing to bring up topics that make me uncomfortable, sometimes quite so, but the friendships are made stronger by the ensuing discussions. 

Perhaps I am presuming a secularist presupposition in discussion and my Opus Dei friend reminds me that he does not share that presupposition. I would not want to silence him from doing so; in fact, unless we acknowledge that difference, we cannot work through to an agreement at all.

Or suppose I presume that law enforcement officers are always a force for social harmony in discussion with my bi-racial relative, who narrates his own abusive encounters with some officers. We can’t get through to a shared position of the need for equality before the law in the presence of law enforcement officers until that difference is worked through dialectically. 

Or suppose I presume that all UD students are treated equally because in class they seem to be, but a UD student who is Black tells me she has been harassed because she is Black by White students and she’s thinking of transferring. I need to listen, first of all, and remind myself as a White professor with tenure that not everyone experiences UD as safe in the way I do. Only then can I persuade her to stay since the school is as much hers as theirs—indeed, more so since they are failing the mandate of virtue in the Mission.

UD’s culture of friendship is not always extended to everyone equally, I have noticed, especially when all difference is censored on behalf of premature universalism.

The critical response of some faculty members (all respected colleagues, some of whom are friends) to the desire of students to discuss race and racism is, in one sense, understandable since such discussions at some schools—at my alma mater, the University of California at Riverside, for example—have led to the dogma that difference is all. Reacting against that dogma, my colleagues argue that sameness is all. 

But UD has the dialectical tools to see the Socratic truth that we are gathered into one and divided into many. I would suggest that that paradox should be the ground of friendship at our school and that without the winnowing of definition and division learned in the art of logic that could achieve the mean between sameness and difference, we will be left, in our minds and associations, in a dark wood of premature universalism, where we will fail to approach the wisdom of truth and virtue that is our only essential, common good.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Dr. Crider, for this intelligent and very thoughtful contribution to our community discourse. You model particularly well how we can dialogue and even disagree without maligning the other or making assumptions about their intent. We all benefit greatly from you.
    I don’t think it’s particularly easy to put into practice the values we try to uphold. You’ve offered a lot to consider here along the lines of how we respond to difference – differences that manifest a number of ways. While grappling with the extent to which certain differences challenge us (a challenge each of us will surely continue to face throughout our lives) I hope one attainable goal is to recognize and respect each other’s dignity as members of our community in a spirit of humility and fraternity. I think we’re at our best when we avoid the urge to turn each other’s differences into a threat against the community that we all love.

  2. This is an extremely thoughtful reflection on the challenges that a Catholic university which is devoted to the liberal arts and to the Western intellectual tradition faces in contemporary America. Original sin crept into the foundation of the United States through slavery, which is evidently incompatible with the Christian view of the human person. The long-term effects of slavery are still felt today in the form of structural inequalities, but also in racist prejudices lingering just below the surface of respectable society.

    Christian anthropology discourages us from placing people in superficial categories which overshadow the fact that all human beings are made in God’s image and likeness. That is who we all are, fundamentally. It is therefore true that we need to treat with caution the categories of race and sexual orientation which mainstream culture encourages us to adopt as characteristics that define us in an essential way. Why these categories of race and sex have become so central in the modern age is an extremely interesting question. Philosophers in the wake of Michel Foucault have spoken of the “biopolitical” orientation of modern governments, which aim to rule us at the level of biological life. (That is why Covid-19 is such a huge challenge to current models of government.)

    Despite the need to be cautious about “race” (and notions of sexual identity as well), Dr. Crider is right in rejecting what he calls a “premature universalism.” Race, in particular, is so deeply ingrained in American society that we cannot simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Rather, we have to challenge it in order, ultimately, to leave it behind.

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