In the rough seas of politics – and not just in the sense of politicians but in the broader sense of how we engage with each other as a collective – it surprises me how frequently we demand purity. Do you believe in freedom of speech or don’t you? Do you believe in being politically correct or don’t you? Do believe in individual liberty or don’t you?
More than purity, we demand sophistication from others. If you’re going to call yourself a feminist, you must have mastered all facets of the subject. If you’re going to call yourself a libertarian, you must have carefully constructed views on politics, economics, and philosophy.
Although sometimes these demands are active and conscious, other times they are subconscious and passive. We see this a lot in student politics: the activist who expresses their grievance in a sort of clumsy, ham-fisted way, but fractures the response into ‘People who will not concede that she’s capable of getting a few things wrong but still be, overall, correct’ and ‘People who will insist that any small flaw in her reasoning is demonstrative of an entirely doomed campaign.’
Perhaps I ought to have started back at the start of this idea, rather than trying to jump on the moving horse. Here’s the question: why do we demand that people who want safe and inclusive university environments either have to be unquestionable fonts of perfect wisdom or perfect representations of complex, multifaceted issues?
So a student feels that allowing a prominent philosopher to speak on campus would make her feel unwelcome. She is transgendered and the philosopher expresses a theory of gender which denies the authenticity of self-identified gender. She, along with a few dozen others and allies, lobbies the university executive to prevent the speech from going ahead.
The response to this is predictable and formulaic. On the one side, we will have people arguing that, yes, transphobia is a very bad thing and, yes, students should be made to feel included on campus and, no, hate speech should not be tolerated for bourgeois liberal reasons. On the other, we will have people arguing that universities are all about free speech and that people don’t have a right not to be offended and that students should be exposed to uncomfortable ideas and also free speech.
But these discussions never get us anywhere because there’s no actual conversation taking place. Least of all, there’s no discussion with the student(s) at the centre of the discussion who are now just particular instances of the universal debate between people with loud opinions.
What is curious is that both the opposition and the support use fundamentally similar rhetoric about perfection and purity. The student is correct, even when she’s wrong, because she’s the perfect and pure instance of the argument. The student is wrong, even when she’s correct, because she’s the perfect and pure instance of the argument.
Calling for nuance in public debate is boring and old hat. It’s the coward’s way out of a complex discussion. I think what I want to see is dialogue instead. Persuasion. I want people who are capable of convincing others and being convinced by others. I don’t want nuance in public debate, I want the public debate.
Even in fraught debates like the one being discussed in this post where we’re dealing with identities and oppression, I still think we need people who are capable of convincing and being convinced.