For years, I’ve been perplexed with the low level of debate and serious conversation in this country. I guess it started for me in undergrad at Pitt. My first taste of a classroom debate gone awry was in my sophomore year, second semester, the spring of ’89. It was existential philosophy, in which I developed an interest because of my philosophy and AP English classes with Rosemary Martino my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. I really liked this class, but didn’t exactly like my discussion section. It was a place where no reconciliation was possible between believing in the existence of God and my teaching assistant’s atheism. It wasn’t as if I talked about my personal believe in God or Christianity much back then. But then again, I didn’t believe in confronting people on a personal level about their beliefs either.
On the one hand we had a great professor, a young and energetic recent PhD teaching in his second semester at Pitt. He made Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Camus come alive as he became excited talking about the Ubermensch (Superman) and Abraham’s “teological suspension of the ethical.” On the other hand, one of his teaching assistants, my discussion section instructor, was an Australian man in his late-twenties, with curly hair like the lead singer from Simply Red, except my instructor’s hair was a dirty blond. He spent discussion after discussion railing on Christians as “people who refuse to believe that God doesn’t exist.” One of our discussions was so anti-anything other than atheism that I found it just as bigoted as anything I’d heard from Hebrew-Israelites or out of a televangelist’s mouth, and pretty much said as much. I was ignored.
It was an excruciating hour, as most of the students in our class outed themselves as staunch atheists, berating Christians, Christianity and other religions as purely a form of social control. The two African American students in the section besides me were somewhere between angry and in tears by the end of the class that day. I was more puzzled than miffed. The attacks from our fearless teaching leaders and from the other students had nothing to do with Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. They were only actively engaged in airing their personal beliefs as strongly as they could, in an atmosphere poisoned by our teaching assistant, who obviously had an ax to grind.
I’ll admit, I was bothered by so many students — all White — who were so cocksure that God didn’t exist, that he was a mere fantasy dreamed up by nomads wandering through the deserts and hanging gardens in the Middle East who knew nothing of science and wanted illogical answers. What I was bothered more by, though, was that this became a personal debate, as if anyone who believed in the existence of a higher power was an idiot seeking to dominate others’ minds and through our modern world back to the Stone Age. I found that argument — and my teaching assistant’s support of it — equally illogical and too personal to address in a one-hour class. In eighteen years of on-and-off again teaching, I’ve never gone into the personal in order to have a free-flowing debate, partly because of what I witnessed on that day. A debate like this doesn’t work if your instructor has a personal agenda.
Unfortunately, it is a debate tactic that is all too common in our public discourse and private arguments in everyday America. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching Chris Matthews’ Hardball on MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh or NPR, or chatting with folks on Facebook or in the comfort of Starbucks. Friendly arguments about issues often turn ugly, and they do so because people on all sides get personal. Now, I’m not talking about having an objective academic discussion about a policy or a social issue. We all have biases, points of view, beliefs that we can and should stand on. No, what we do typically is to attack someone’s intelligence or personhood instead of attacking someone’s argument or attempt to understand why they hold so strongly to a particular argument. Or we get deeply personal about a given issue, as if our perspective is shared by so many that we can automatically win a debate because of our experiences.
There’s no debate in America where the personal doesn’t get sucked in more than on race. Whether in the classroom or on Facebook, in a casual conversation over wine or at a major conference presentation, folks just personalize the issues around race as if you’re addressing them. I’ve often discussed the long and troubling history of this country around race in all of its complexity. In response, classmates, friends, professors, students and others have all automatically made it personal. I’ve been called a “racial determinist,” “paranoid,” “Afrocentric,” “irrational,” “overly emotional,” just for saying that our playing field is still far from level or that even Whites who were abolitionists back in the day didn’t typically believe in Black equality. Others, meanwhile, have said things like, “I’m not a racist,” or “Why are you bringing this up now?,” or discussed how their father didn’t get a job because it was given to a less qualified Black. I’m not just talking about Whites. African American students in my classes have often expressed their anger and rage over perceived and real slights and over anything that involved inequality, even when it wasn’t specifically racial in nature.
What I’ve done in my debates in and out of the classroom over the years is to allow different sides of this argument to play out — with some venting, of course — before bringing folks back to the actual argument or the policy or issue around race that we were addressing in the first place. I’ve often had to say, “This isn’t about you. If you think it is, then that says more about you then it does about…” a particular policy or issue of race. It usually works, getting students and my colleagues to calm down and at least agree to disagree. It’s a starting point, hardly perfect, but something that often can be built upon.
The problem is, though, that this issue of the personal goes far beyond race, although it is often involved. Name the issue or policy debate, and you can find a commentator, pundit or everyday whose argued about it from the gut, based on some personal anecdote. Or attacked others as if they didn’t have the right to speak in the first place. Even among friends, debating an issue often means having the fact that I have a PhD or am a progressive thrown in my face as if I don’t have a right to my perspective. A fairer tax system equals “hating the rich.” Say that Rush Limbaugh’s mean because he accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating or faking his Parkinson’s symptoms, and you’re saying that all Rush listeners are mean, too. Agree with the closing of Gitmo, and you’re accused of supporting terrorism. You can’t have a real or deep debate in this country about anything without it becoming a personal attack or a matter of deep personal conviction. If all politics local, then debating has only recently become a personal crusade.
This is the consequence of generations of privilege without responsibility, of an inadequate system of education that prefers social control to critical thinking, of self-centered pride over collective responsibility. We exaggerate the image of the rugged individualist and Horatio Alger to the point where we all think — progressives and conservatives alike — that we can go it alone. With this kind of thinking, we can’t have honest and good debate about much in this country. It’s too bad. For with global warming and climate change, torture issues and terrorism, a major economic meltdown and ever increasing energy needs, we need rational and reasonable debate more than ever. Without it, I might as well tell Noah to grab a solar generator and find the nearest cave in West Virginia when he’s my age.