Thursday, November 17, 2005

On Ideologues and Truth Seeking: Part One

I just read an interesting piece in the NYRB on the media. I took particular interest in the discussion of right-wing blogs and how they reinforce of disseminate a coherent message through out the Conservative media network. Unlike a lot of other bloggers that lean left-of-center like I do, I don't read right-wing blogs. When I do, I am so unsatisfied. I am also quite depressed, because I begin to recognize the source of the phrases, positions and "facts" that many of my students make. You see, I was a pretty naive gal until a few years ago when the failed 2000 election changed my whole perspective on politics. I started to really pay attention more and figure out what happened, why it happened, and what this means.

When I started to pay attention to news outlets and learn more about the operatives among the Conservative movement, I was struck my how often the positions I was striving to get my students to question were a product of that magnificent media machine. Having said that, I still cannot stomache to read the top right-wing blogs.

Blogging has transformed into a crucial activity to sustain my intellectual life. When I set out to write long entries (watch out, here comes one), I tend to work out complicated positions, finish conversations that have been playing out in my mind, and invite discussion on difficult topics. I am simply not sustained by pithy, defensive, sound bites. I long for real conversation. I also want to be challenged to rethink positions so that I might have a more subtle and truthful position. I often tell my students, when giving them advice for how to write a paper, "find the smartest person in the room that you disagree with the most, and try to persuade her."

I have been reflecting alot this week on the relationship between ideology and an intellectual pursuit of truth. I imagine that many who read my blog and don't agree with me could call me an ideologue, but I vigilantly struggle against becoming a mere ideologue. I fight the all-too-easy path of letting my beliefs harden and my openness to other's positions shut down.

When I think about how I arrive at political positions and moral positions, I shudder at the pain, the struggle, and the tumult of working through grey area stuff. I think many legal and moral issues are really difficult to find simple and obvious solutions to. I just taught Book III of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, which I think does a good job of thinking through how legislators should assign punishments: when they should pardon and pity or when they should praise or blame. Aristotle does a good job of distinguishing between constraint and coercion and the nuances that legislators and judges should consider when examining the two.

I asked my students to think through some really complicated examples of student misconduct, wherein students such as themselves are on hearing boards to assign punishments and judge each other.

I presented an example of a young man, who has been through a miserable week because his mother is diagnosed with late stage cancer, his girlfriend dumped him, and he cannot sleep. He then goes out to a party to escape his life, gets too drunk, and begins to fall apart. A security officer on campus tries to restrain him from walking into the wrong dorm. And, frightened, miserable and drunk, he pushes the officer off of him. The officer then cuffs him, drags him to the office, and files charges. When the young man goes before the conduct review board on campus, he is deemed responsible for disrespect to a security officer and being drunk and disruptive. Rather than given greater support at the College--counseling and consideration--he is suspended.

When I ask my students to think through what is the proper punishment, what should a conduct board do with this?, the majority of them find him personally responsible for misbehaving, think that the circumstances surrounding it are irrelevant, and that he should be punished.

I presented a case of two men having consensual sex. One of the men is "out" and the other is absolutely not out. The "closeted" student's roomate catches him and the other student in flagrante delicto. The next few days the "closeted" student becomes terrified of rumors, of ostracization from his fraternity, or worse, of physical punishment for being gay. So, he reports this sexual act as rape. He goes to the health center, tells the therapist that he was lured back to the the gay student's room (which is down the hall from his own room), and that he was then coerced into having sex. What should be the outcome of this trial?

The latter question is particularly thorny and laden with all sorts of issues of homophobia, consent, self-hate, and guilt to sort through. Both parties come to the conduct board with unbelievably traumatized and have to be judged by their peers. What is the right answer to this case, how do we make the best judgment?

Sorting out what is right, what should happen, how laws should be written is difficult work. It also requires more than theoretical rigor, it requires that the one who is in a position to judge actually spend time with the very real people who are affected by judicial bodies.

Anyone who has navigated through the judicial system with someone who has been charged of a crime knows what a blunt instrument the law can be. What is worse is when those in a position to judge, assign blame, or mete out punishments are ideologues.

God helps us from this particular human cruelty.

Finding the truth is not easy. In the process--if we take it seriously--we are going to be put into crisis. This is why Plato gives us the allegory of the cave. Leaving the security and predictability of our entrenched beliefs about the world is painful.