February 10, 2020

LORENZEN | This Semester, Commit to Ending the Illusion of Discourse

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Last week, fellow Opinion columnist Michael Johns Jr. wrote a column entitled “This Semester, Commit to Discourse.” In it, he eloquently makes the case that in answering “that core question — how do I grow? — we must commit ourselves to spaces of political and philosophical encounter.” While I do entirely agree with my esteemed colleague and fellow Cornell Political Union member’s opinion on this topic, I must argue that it leaves a profoundly important stone unturned in discussing how we may, as a community, heighten political and philosophical discourse on Cornell’s campus.

The truth is that committing to discourse is not nearly enough.

I have found that, on this campus, there are three main manifestations of civil discourse. The first is the absence of discourse — that which Johns makes such a compelling argument against. Those involved in this discourse are the Cornellians who refuse to engage in discussion with those who hold political beliefs contrary to their own or, when they do so, find themselves unable to engage in a discussion which holds mutual respect and fundamental civility. Those committed to this absence of discourse invariably wall themselves away from all political discussions or wall themselves within social groups of those who share their same ideology. I strongly concur with Johns’ call for members of this group to instead choose to enter the public sphere and commit themselves to free discussion and debate.

The second manifestation of civil discourse on this campus frightens me far more. The truth is that committing to discourse is, ostensibly, easy. It far too often proves superficial. It is remarkably easy to speak with those who do not hold your political beliefs: to debate and discuss the topics of the day with them in a civil, respectful manner. Indeed, one can spar endlessly in intellectual buzzwords while leaving their emotions and actual ardent political ideals checked in the coatroom. You can talk in hyper rationalized circles of logic which lead nowhere except to a feigned smile and muttered “well, agree to disagree” before you retreat back to your group text to vent about that “crazy liberal” or “crazy conservative.” This second manifestation of discourse exists as pretense: It enables us to speak with eloquence and magnanimity in public while removing the personal, the emotional and the basic humanity from all debates. It is a falsehood, and a dangerous one.

The truth is discourse is messy. And it should be.

Real discourse which truly challenges your preconceptions is not that which is performed in public like an act of theater to showcase your civility and earn plaudits in your favorite intellectual circles. The third manifestation of discourse is the one which we must aspire to. The discussions we need are the ones that grow heated because of how passionate we are about the topic; they are ones that make us vociferously defend our points and attack those of others. They are the discussions where we do not moderate every word we say out of fear of losing the debate or speaking imperfectly. They are the discussions where we speak quickly, passionately and truthfully. They are the discussions where we make mistakes in our logic and on occasion, say too much or speak out of turn. They are the discussions that make you pace around the room in nervous energy. They are the discussions which get your heart racing and bring your blood to a rolling boil. They are the discussions which demand apologies afterwards because you grew too bitter and made that comment you knew was a step too far. In this third manifestation of discourse, we speak genuine truth- sometimes bluntly and uncomfortably. Those engaged in this form of discourse do not couch their rhetoric in false civility premised around abstract concepts like “common ground,” but instead showcase respect for the other side through telling them truthfully when one believes the other side is absolutely out of their mind. Then, they have a full, spirited debate. They apologize afterwards when necessary (all too frequently for those who share the same faults as yours truly) and get a drink with the person they have just debated.

In concurring with Johns’ article, I must draw a distinction and request something further from the Cornell community because I do not believe committing to discourse is enough. We must also commit to halt false discourse by speaking truthfully and fully from motivations of genuine political and philosophical passions, rather than the perceived social benefit of appearing falsely civil and withdrawing from the most important debates.

That is what I will be aspiring to do this semester. I will inevitably fail much of the time in doing so. I will also, without a doubt in my mind, frequently say the wrong thing at the wrong time, push the debate too far or feel the need to apologize after a debate to a dear friend. But in the pursuit of a higher form of discussion which prioritizes truth and open dialogue above all, I think this messy discourse is worth it. I urge my fellow Cornellians to do the same. This semester, commit not just to discourse but to ending the illusion of discourse on this campus.

Andrew Lorenzen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.