Bill Long 9/10/06
Here was how the exchange went in my jurisprudence seminar last week. To set the context: we were studying Plato's portrayal of Socrates in three of his dialogues (Apology, Euthyphro, Crito). I wanted to test out a hypothesis with my students regarding the "heroic" nature of Socrates. I was nurtured in an academic tradition which taught me to revere him. As I was taught, Socrates was a man who patiently exposed the unreflective nature of the so-called "experts" in his society and, as a result, was condemned to death by a 500 person jury of Athenians. Socrates represented "freedom of thought," the virtue of the examined life, the importance of "knowing yourself."
But I wasn't sure if this generation of students would have the same approach to Socrates. In fact, I rather doubted that they would. If there is one thing you learn as a teacher, it is that the assumptions and realities that shape your students are quite different than your own experience. The better teachers learn to honor their students' experience while presenting their own "take" on the world and their field.
So, here was how the exchange developed. When I asked the students how they thought about Socrates, about half felt that he was a sort of nuisance that probably shouldn't have been killed but should have been punished in some way. A few (the older ones, as it turns out) saw Socrates as "heroic." A few felt that the jury was justified in voting for his death. One student expressed his impatience with Socrates in words like these: 'Well, Socrates just criticized everyone. If you want to have an impact in the world, you've got to build up and not just cut down. Criticism is easy. What we need are some constructive solutions to problems.' After the student said that statement, I fell silent, as if to invite the rest of the class to respond. No one took the bait. Then the student repeated himself, as if he needed to say again what he had just clearly said. I didn't respond in that forum because I often like to have students have the "last word" on issues; I have no need to rush in and put in my "two cents" after ever comment. But, I would like to spend the rest of this essay reflecting on my student's comment.
If You Don't Have Something Nice to Say...
How many times was I told while growing up that if I couldn't say something constructive or "nice" in a situation, that I should hold my tongue? Actually, I believe this advice is, in general, very good advice, especially if you want to have people change as a result of listening to you. I have found that people are most willing to listen to me or change their minds when they have just laughed; people who are under attack generally don't do much laughing. So, I can understand the perspective that only constructive statements are useful or helpful. Yet something doesn't sit right with that statement. Actually three things don't seem right.
1. To be "destructive" may actually turn out to be "constructive." Everyone knows that the first step in rebuilding a city block is to destroy the old buildings that are on site. Indeed, there are demolition companies who specialize in "taking down" the old. We don't seem to require that these companies also know how to replace the structure with something shiny and new; it is enough if they implode the buildings with skill.
2. Any "new" way of seeing things will first be articulated with false starts and halting explanations. It even took God more than one try to get things right. After all, doesn't the text say in Gen. 6 that God was sorry that he made humans on the earth; it "grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:6). So, what did God do? Sent the flood, destroying almost every living creature. If God couldn't get it right the first time, why should we expect humans to do so? I think the "requirement" that people have something "constructive" to say therefore ignores the way that ideas come about and develop.
Let's take one example from the history of thought. One of the leading thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th century in England was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He was a student of the first systematizer of the common law, William Blackstone. Actually Bentham despised his teacher (was he also jealous?) because he saw Blackstone's praise of the common law as simply a whitewashing of an oppressive social class structure and inefficient and unjust legal system in England. In his first book (A Fragment of Government), written when he was 28 years- old, Bentham attacked Blackstone unmercifully. Bentham did mention an alternative theory in passing ("the greatest good for the greatest number"), but he spent most of his time in a scathing attack on his teacher. It wasn't until a decade later that he published his full-fledged utilitarian theory.
In other words, the longing comes before the words; the yearning for something new arises before the eloquent expression of what that new reality might be. When the yearning is first spoken, it is done so in a variety of ways that might be seen as "destructive," such as questioning the presuppositions of the earlier system, launching ad hominem attacks on various people, being unclear in what you are trying to say. To require that a person have a system "worked out" before s/he opens his mouth confuses the extent to which the dominant paradigm in society is already a "worked out" system. In other words, a person who urges you to wait to speak until you have worked out a constructive alternative doesn't really understand are fragile, flimsy and often futile are the intellectual underpinnings of the society in which s/he lives.
3. We learn most when we develop the skills to determine if what people are telling us is true. Someone tells us something. The person claims to have authority and insight into the way the world works. How are we to make this knowledge our own, or even to know if the words said are true? Well, we must question. We must ask for clarification. And, most of all, we must learn to hold ideas in our mind without committing ourselves to them for the longest time. There usually is little need to buy into what people are saying when they are saying it. There is time to suspend belief, to exercise skepticism, not to embrace what is said. If you climb a mountain, you ought to be quite certain that each step you make is on firm ground. Why should it be any different for ideas? Someone wants me to commit myself to some idea of theirs every day of my life. Why should I? Why not raise questions? Figure out on what basis the person makes his/her claims? Expose the flimsiness or inconsistencies of a person's thought?
I may not question what every phrase of my home insurance policy means, but I when someone asks me for my commitment to a national goal, to adopt a way of seeing the world, to give my wholehearted support to a candidate, well, I will just ask questions. Even if I am not being "constructive."
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long