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  • Saturday, April 09, 2005

    When silence is cheaper than talk

    I have just begun reading The Supreme Identity, by Alan Watts. The following is excerpted from his Preface to the First Edition.

    I am not one who believes that it is any necessary virtue in the philosopher to spend his life defending a consistent position. It is surely a kind of spiritual pride to refrain from ‘thinking out loud’, and to be unwilling to let a thesis appear in print until you are prepared to champion it to the death. Philosophy, like science, is a social function, for a man cannot think rightly alone, and the philosopher must publish his thought as much to learn from criticism as to contribute to the sum of wisdom.

    This passage brought to my mind the Applied Ethics class I took last year as part of my paralegal education. I found the class so frustrating that it inspired two bouts of nausea, particularly because class discussions constituted 15% of the grade, and initially the topics for discussion provided in the textbook were so lightweight and banal that everyone in class seemed lukewarm on participating. After the first two weeks of class, I decided that my strategy for the term would be to actively avoid participating in the class discussions and concentrate on the other 85% of the grade, which included five essays and an oral presentation at the end of the term.

    My first essay, though I didn’t intend it at the time, turned out to be the opening statement in a written debate with the instructor which lasted most of the term. The essay was, as she described it in her feedback, about “the ethical implications of our ethics class.” Her feedback went on to attempt to persuade me that the weightiness of the subject matter was irrelevant, and that I should treat the class as a learning opportunity.

    By the time I received this feedback, the instructor had tried to juice up class discussion by deviating somewhat from the textbook in order to talk about current events, which naturally led to discussion of the war in Iraq. I didn’t change my strategy, but simply maintained my silence, even when a classmate suggested, with apparent seriousness, that everyone in the Middle East should be extinguished before they became terrorists. It was with these comments fresh in my mind, along with the feedback from my instructor, that I began brainstorming for what would become my third essay for the class.

    I’ve come across some notes from that brainstorming session, and here’s a passage which didn’t make it into the final draft: “Opinions are like a particular body part which everyone has. It is extremely rarely essential to allow any person to become intimately familiar with that body part, and it is generally considered in very poor taste to expose that part for the whole world to see.” In the end, I decided it would be equally in very poor taste to put a statement like that in my essay. Here is the final draft of that essay, which I titled, “The Intellectual Consequences of Insisting on a Right to One’s Opinion, or, the Value of a Little Silence in Situations in which Talk is Cheap.”

    In spite of the fact that I find myself in this class, I still value the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. And while I suppose that it is true that each individual can learn something in every situation, not all learning situations are created equal. A Ku Klux Klan rally, for example, would be a great learning opportunity only if I were not already aware of the fact that stupid racists make me uncomfortable. By the same token, this class might be a great learning opportunity if I were not already painfully aware of the fact that, while everyone has opinions, very few people care to go through the trouble of making their opinions morally and ethically respectable or consistent with known facts. This class makes me sick, and I don’t mean that in the banally insulting sense; I mean that the class literally makes me physically ill, particularly during last week’s discussion in which someone actually had the poor taste to wish that people unfortunate enough to have been born in the Middle East be bombed out of existence.

    A verse in the Tao Te Ching states that one who knows does not speak, while one who speaks does not know. I don’t regard myself a sage, and I don’t quote this verse in order to make me look like a sage by virtue of not speaking in class. I also don’t quote this verse because I am under the false impression that this idea originated with the Taoists. We say that talk is cheap, which expresses the age old idea in a modern way. I would extend the metaphor by saying that not only is talk cheap, but if talk were a commodity, its value would be trending sharply downward. I say this because I have encountered too many people, both in and out of this class, who act as if the First Amendment excuses them from having to justify any nonsense which comes out of their mouths. The First Amendment is strictly a legal right. A person who expects to preserve their intellectual integrity has an obligation either to back up that nonsense or to retract it.

    Maybe I should have answered that person. Nobody made her back up her statement. I didn’t make her back up that statement. At the time, I thought that the best course of action for me would be not even to look at her; that way, I wouldn’t be sure who actually made the statement, and she would get a chance to make a better intellectual impression on me the next time around. I still don’t know who made the statement, and perhaps I was wrong to let her off the hook that easily.

    A few years ago, I was in a similarly unpleasant situation in which I overheard a conversation involving a Christian man, not merely a layman, but someone regarded as having moral authority within his congregation. At the time, he was not speaking in his authoritative capacity, but was having a casual conversation, the topic of which was the alleged gang problem in our mutual hometown of Salem…. This moral authority figure, during the course of this casual conversation, said that the solution to the gang problem was to have the cops go out and shoot fifty or sixty gang members. Having overheard, I immediately called him on the carpet for it. And his only defense was to lamely state that he had a right to his opinion. I let it go at that.

    While it might have been true in the strictly legal sense that he had a right to his opinion, what about his obligation to make his personal opinion consistent with his religious beliefs? A person who is a Biblical literalist, as he is, should give up the notion of having a right to an opinion in conflict with the moral laws that he otherwise claims to uphold.

    In that situation, I was reasoning deductively. I concluded that if he chose to live by a set of religious beliefs that forbade murder, then he was wrong to hold an opinion advocating murder, regardless of what legal rights he might have to that opinion. The recent situation in class requires me to reason inductively. I know that she has advocated mass murder in class, but I can’t “work backwards” to figure out what her larger belief system is, and whether the opinion is consistent with that belief system. But if she is like most people, her belief system, whatever it might be, probably also forbids murder. So in effect, people like this woman and like this religious man use their First Amendment rights as an excuse to talk without thinking.

    In conclusion, I don’t feel that I have to be satisfied with finding myself in a situation in which 15% of my grade hinges upon my willingness to share opinions with people to whom I would prefer to remain a stranger, especially when the situation lends itself so well to such nonsense. I just wish that other people in the class shared my aversion to the situation and followed my silent example. There’s no sense in making talk any cheaper.

    In the interest of allowing the other side of the debate to be heard, here is my instructor’s feedback.

    I am trying hard not to be judgmental. It certainly appears that you are not giving us the same benefit. I did not create this class, as you did not. But for two hours every week, we both exist within its structure.

    This is a discussion class. Whether that seems palatable to you or not, it is true. Your paper contains a secondary theme of criticism for your fellow classmates. You have chosen to not talk in class or to direct your criticism in any direction whatsoever. I find your reasons for not talking to be suspect…. If you have something to say, I recommend you speak up.

    (In all fairness, I should also state that I have a lot more respect for my instructor now than when I was taking her class.)

    While I continue to stand by many of the points I made, the theme of my essay certainly seems to stand in opposition to the Alan Watts passage. Of course, Watts had in mind something different from stating opinions in everyday conversation. Watts wrote a shelf full of books on his philosophy of religious syncretism, and his concern, as expressed elsewhere in that preface, was that the intellectual work he was undertaking was more than one person could complete in one lifetime.

    But there’s no reason why the passage can’t apply to everyday conversation. It’s true enough that most people (and certainly this includes myself, whether or not I care to admit it) open their mouths with the notion that they are contributing to the sum of wisdom, and not in order to learn from criticism. But conversation – the beginning of the exchange of ideas – is the necessary first step in distinguishing good ideas from bad. When someone shares an idea and no one responds, the person can draw a conclusion, right or wrong, about the value of the idea. An idea kept within one’s own head is as much in a vacuum as is an idea to which no one responds, and that person can draw a similar conclusion. Either person may flatter herself about the quality of the idea, but the first person at least has had the courage to put her idea in a forum. The first idea is silently evaluated by those who hear it; the second idea is never evaluated because it is never heard.

    The act of sharing an opinion is necessarily the act of going out on a limb, and the sharer of the opinion risks having the limb sawn off by anyone who hears the opinion. Not taking the risk is the act of greater arrogance.

    2 Comments:

    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I'm not sure that conversation is necessarily the starting point for evaluating ideas. I think the better word would be dialog.

    Tue Apr 12, 01:11:00 PM PDT  
    Blogger Kirk said...

    Whether "dialog" or "conversation" is the appropriate word would depend on the context; to me, "dialog" is a bit too formal to describe what was going on in that classroom.

    Wed Apr 13, 07:19:00 AM PDT  

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