Collegial or curmudgeonly?

Steve Nordin

This last Sunday night, I should have been writing two papers. They determine my grades, which determine my GPA, which determines my overall success in life.
Despite this, I chose to get into an argument with a fellow Plantzonian instead of getting another much-needed dose of caffeine into my veins. Our discussion was conducted with the utmost civility, which made it easy to continue talking into the early hours of the morning.
This kind of talk is why I went to Lawrence and an excellent supplement to our formal liberal arts education in the classroom. Without going into much detail, we touched on gender, politics, race, class, privilege, language, athletic culture and the Lawrence curriculum.
Needless to say, I completely won the argument. He acknowledged my total victory and conceded to my sophisticated sophistry. The audience applauded as I returned to my room in triumph.
Perhaps that isn’t exactly how it happened. It actually ended in the usual collegiate “agreement to disagree.” I used this convenient détente to mentally turn all his points into relativistic mush that my sophomoric weltanschauung could feast upon.
Despite this constructed victory, my competitive drive – which many of us have and many of us owe partial credit to for our attendance here – was left unsatisfied. I bid him goodnight and returned hungry to my midterm essays.
The sugar-laden emollient I consumed could not remove this intellectual dissatisfaction. We both agreed that our irreconcilable perspectives, if extended, could devolve into simple labeling, emotive nonsense and moral condemnation.
We were very uncomfortable with the idea of hitting below the rhetorical belt, in ad hominem territory, for the sake of winning an argument. Despite the fact that he was, of course, utterly wrong, he is a nice guy and presented passionate argument without becoming hysterical – for which I respect him immensely.
Yet I didn’t win. I get the uneasy feeling that somehow the propagation of my genes depends on my verbal success in a debate. All of my forays into the dark abyss of the social sciences – Briggs Hall – have taught me that winning will serve me better than being civil.
I’d certainly put my money on Machiavelli demolishing Kant in a dust-up, yet it seems so crass and unworthy of a learning environment like Lawrence to engage in the tricks of the partisan hack.
We all came here to learn, inside the classroom and out. We are refugees from an outside world whose Glenn Becks, Keith Olbermanns, Steven Colberts and Jon Stewarts have left us skeptical of reasonable discussions and basic human decency.
The students, society’s guardians of idealistic na’veté, have become prematurely cynical, bitter, politically neutral to the point of apathy – because of the zero-sum game of modern discourse.
As usual, I have come to the conclusion that there is a problem facing our generation. The handy intellectual gut-check of “WWSD?” comes into play: “What Would Socrates Do?”
For my desire to have the “right opinion,” Socrates would declare me a plebian ninny bumbling about the Cave, declaring my intellectual superiority to my troglodyte brethren. Indeed, Socrates.
The cynic in me scoffs and asks the question that is a mainstay of our generation:
“So what?”
In the space of a decade, the United States government has fought two wars, expanded bureaucratic power dramatically, sanctioned torture and accumulated trillions of dollars in debt. Politics and civil society have been reduced to simple reaction and counter-reaction – leaving those in the middle out in the cold and our society utterly inert.
Look where fiery outbursts on TV and snappy sound bites on YouTube have gotten us. If one believes all the messages out there, then it is quite likely to think everyone is terrible at running the country. While it seems many of us have taken this as a justification for sitting back and giving up, we forget that in condemning society, we condemn ourselves.
We ought to walk out of this school not only with a diploma, dismal job prospects and thousands of dollars in debt, but also with a commitment to discuss the issues of the day in an open society.
The habits of compromise with and respect for people who you find ideologically odious need to begin today with our training wheel discussions at Lawrence so our great-great-grandchildren may have a chance of being slightly less in debt to China than we are.
We risk a “Lawrence Look-Around” and murmurings of “not cool, brah…” for being the loyal intellectual opposition. We chance being a well-regarded doormat if we nibble on the apathy lotus.
Start arguing. There’s only a minimal chance of hemlock as the result.