Monday, November 16, 2015

Ground Rules

The Girl is preparing for her debate tournament next Saturday.  She gets the topics ahead of time, but she doesn't find out which side she's supposed to argue until 15 minutes before the match.  That means she has to prepare both sides of the argument, and be ready to argue either way.

One of the topics this week is whether GMO foods do more harm than good.  Last night, as she did her research, she got frustrated and asked me for help.  As she put it, "all of the anti-GMO stuff is really just anti-science.  I can't use that!"

That's my girl.

She's content to argue either side of something that's, well. arguable.  But to her, the legitimacy of science is not arguable; it's a ground rule.  If she can find a science-friendly argument against GMO's, she'll happily use it; depending on which side she gets, she may need it.  But she's not betraying science.

I've been thinking a lot about arguments and ground rules recently.  There's no shortage of topics.

The recent set of conflicts on campuses around racial climates strike me as rooted in different understandings of ground rules.  Some people believe that protests are inherently dangerous, scary, or objectionable, regardless of their content or motivation.  (In my observation, that understanding is usually buttressed by a really selective reading of history.)  The more serious conflicts occur between those who take unfettered speech as a ground rule, and those who take mutual respect as a ground rule.  The former camp is theoretically straightforward, even if frequently inconsistent in application.  (We have closed meetings on a public campus all the time, and nobody says boo about that...)  The latter camp argues that procedural equality often serves to entrench other kinds of inequality, and it asks for a focus on substantive equality before getting hung up on procedure.  That camp tends to be less theoretically straightforward, even as it makes sense on the ground.  As a political theorist, I see lineage to both arguments.  The first group is correct that arguments like Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" can quickly lead to terrible and scary places.  And the second group is correct that a focus on process outside of context can lead to absurd outcomes, as in Anatole France's line that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges.  

More basically, the attacks on Paris by religious fundamentalists are rooted in an even deeper conflict over ground rules.  Do you base your sense of rules and ethics on the Enlightenment, or on a desire for a specific kind of caliphate?  As near as I can tell, the two are mutually exclusive.

In higher education, we've seen an increasing intensity to the conflict between two sets of ground rules.  One side assumes that the point of education is to perpetuate the society that exists.  The other side assumes that the point of education is to empower people to remake the world.  In practice, they aren't always in conflict; the former group doesn't mind technical innovation, and the latter tends to value certain ethical precepts with hundreds of years of lineage behind them.  But sometimes the two camps clash.  Custodians of traditions that they believe are under attack by modernity are quick to take umbrage to what they consider irreverence.  Partisans of critical thinking tend to assume that a certain level of irreverence is healthy, and that too much deference is a sign of intellectual laziness.  Each holds the other in mild disdain, and each is quick to take offense when the other shows that disdain.  

The tricky thing about ground rules is that most of the time, people don't have carefully argued reasons for holding them.  They take ground rules as given, and are often genuinely surprised when others don't see their validity.  That abrupt shock can lead to fear, and even to anger.  To me -- and to The Girl -- tested, empirical evidence is self-evidently a valid standard.  That's the point at which our skepticism stops.  To people who hold other beliefs, that may look "dogmatic."  In a sense, it is.  But everybody is dogmatic; they just hold different dogma.  

Dogmas are clashing a lot these days.  My optimism -- which may be naive -- is based on a hunch that at some level, enough of us share enough bedrock dogma that we can find ways to live and work together.  We just have to allow ourselves to be shocked, and then to get over that shock and engage intelligently and respectfully.  We can choose to get some distance on our own assumptions, and to self-consciously bring ethical reflection to the process of improving them.  We can make the choice to change some of our assumptions.  It's a challenge for an eleven year old; it's a challenge for a forty-seven year old.  But it's the right thing to do.  That's where my skepticism stops.