The Articles of Good Faith
some principles of speech for nervous classrooms
University classrooms imo have a kind of lapsed or degraded ‘habitus’ for having “challenging” political discussions, for a number of possible reasons, one being that the political and psychosocial tensions and contradictions within contemporary American society have surged above our capacity to manage them. Those forces, like flood waters, ‘wash away’ or wash at the borders of our “civil” democratic norms and practices (norms and practices which are historically often pseudo-civil, pseudo-democratic). The levees break.
Any number of subjects are psychologically activating, and at worst (one can judge for themselves the general separation of truth and caricature), at worst rather than best, a nervous, high-strung safetyism reigns, where institutional power and recourse to institutional power are used to “manage” or police classroom and campus behavior with explicit and social sanctions. Words harm, ideas are dangerous and contagious, power imbalances are believed to structure all relationships, the frictions of group difference are continual, microaggressions and privileges suffuse the atmosphere with a thick humidity of discomfort, avoidance and exclusion. (All alongside class anxiety, socioeconomic aspiration, sexual hyper-vigilance and the exceedingly small but frightening danger of mass shootings).
This is a draft! Not going to articulate all. But with all that in mind I started wondering about a kind of "speech code” for campuses structured around something other than offensiveness, hatred and harm. “Codes” are dorky and sweet, some undergrads can be very attached to their campus “honor code”, and honor codes are some mix of Boy Scout/Girl Scout idealism, ‘Scent of a Woman’ fakery, and institutional discipline. But here are some chunks and phrases for what might be a kind of Code of Speech, with some affinity for Chicago’s Speech Principles , Grice’s maxims, “steel-manning” and maximal charity, Habermas’ ideal speech situation, and, unfortunately, some goopy “mindfulness” stuff. (There’s I’m sure a respectable intellectual version of the last, I could place it in psychoanalytic language, but I’m not pulling it into memory right now.)
Those are orientations a university will traditionally teach, implicitly or explicitly, the sort of thing to be found on a syllabus or practiced in debate club. But there may be value in “codifying” them at the university level, like an Honor Code, as a point of *social* orientation. Even in articulating them I have moments in which, or wavelengths on which I “cringe.” Because etiquette can be irritating, unnecessary, burdensome, vain. It becomes a ground for competition. But etiquette, manners, habits at their healthiest sublimate our aggressive instincts, our emotionality and impulsivity into dialogue and debate. They can orient us to each other by common gestures, symbols, and affects, with a clarifying order, and transmit strongest signal over longest distances without degradation, breaking through the noise.
Here, some rough notes:
’will recognize even deeply held beliefs as positions currently held, which could at least in theory change in response to evidence or argument, though no one is under any obligation to change their beliefs and no one should be pressured to change their beliefs. We should be all only open to examining them.’
‘will endeavor about one’s views and reasoning to be transparent, which is a process of continual learning, reflection and growth; transparency will also mean, ideally, mindful sharing of one’s own reactions, responses, confusions, and the limits of one’s knowledge and certainty. For example, “I feel anger when you say that”, “I feel angry because”, “This is difficult to hear”, “I feel very very strongly the opposite”, “I am not currently close to being persuaded on this”, “I consider that point valid”, “I am not persuaded by that point because”, “I do or do not judge this piece of evidence to merit my seal of approval”, “From my experiences of”, “From my experience as a ____ person” “Some people who I’ve talked to about this say”. “I don’t have an answer for that right now”, “I would have to refresh my memory on the research”, “I need to think about that further”, …
Benefit of the doubt, steel manning, maximal charity – none of us can read minds -
and instead of blanket imputations like “racist”, “misogynist”, finer-grained observations, even “That sounds misogynistic to me”, “I think that argument makes racist/racially biased assumptions.” More formally, “That statement has potential interpretations or implications that could be plausibly or validly deemed racist or racially biased.” This is an emotional labor. It will be for everyone, but many hands make lighter work. (It is more correct to say “That sounds racist to me”, “I think there’s some racism in that reasoning”, “That joke offends me”, “You’re making an argument made by racists in 1855” than to say “That IS racist” or “you ARE racist”. And even when it is, and they are, a scalpel does more of the Lord’s work than a saw.)