My job as a writer and educator consists of talking about, and listening to others talk about, ideas. Academics describe ideas, analyze them, and evaluate them. But over the last couple of years, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to an expectation that accompanies such conversations, whether spoken or written: that the point is to reach either general assent to the usefulness of an idea, or to produce collectively a formulation so vague as to neutralize any remaining controversy.
I don’t mean that other, lesser intellectuals do this. I have no sympathy for that overfamiliar invective against coddled millennials secluded within null safe spaces – a transparently sadistic theme that has been deployed by a militant alt-right faction to justify the targeted harassment of students, staff, and faculty. Recent events at my own institution, and throughout the profession at large, continue to reveal the profound unsafety in which our work takes place, especially for women, queer and trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities.
Rather, I mean that I do it myself, even when I really don’t want to, and even when I honestly don’t believe I have to. I have found myself nodding along vigorously, and interjecting acquiescent sounds — “mmm!”; “right!”: sometimes even a decisive “yes.” (with an audible period at the end) —while listening to people whose analysis of whatever topic was under discussion I found to be incomplete, incoherent, or fucked up.
Why have I done this? Occasionally, because the person addressing me spoke from a position of professional power. I felt that if I did not behave as though I was agreeing, I would be threatened with unpleasant consequences, ranging from being dismissed as stupid (the worst) to merely being thought callow and awkward (which will be forgiven because the transgression ultimately affirms the power relation),. But that unambiguously macho form of catechistical interrogation has been less common than has been a more subtle, ambient type of anticipation that seeps into most arguments I find myself having about ideas. It is the coercive delight of an individual who, because they are moved by an idea, expect me to be moved by it too – and whom I too often find myself obliging.
That is, I frequently pretend to agree with people who are in no position to interfere with my professional life at all, and it has started to make me feel profoundly uncomfortable. It’s not just an academic thing. I notice myself doing it in my own queer and trans communities, where the need to be affirmed in our identities sometimes leads us to recoil, rather than explain our ideas about our souls, our bodies, and our ethics – all topics where the disagreements that really do exist between and among us (and, of course, inside each of us) vibrate and glitter beautifully. I notice it online, where we are encouraged to unfollow rather than engage, to lol rather than to persuade, and where loathsome trolls who live for nihilistic argy-bargy sometimes seem emboldened, rather than repelled, by meaningful disagreement. Online assholes attempt to blur the difference between harassment and objectionable opinion – an urgently important difference, with meaningful legal, political, and intellectual consequences. Given which strategy, I can understand the appeal of an echo chamber, provided I’m not the one doing the echoing.
I notice the effects of that kind of rhetoric in the classroom, where we express that we “feel like Wilde is saying [something]” or simply that he is “obviously talking about sex there.” These intuitions are always meaningful, in so far as they disclose an important subjective condition; and sometimes insightful, in that they point towards objectifying that condition, making it public and sharable. But on the other hand, when treated as impasses or termini, tacit expressions of approval pull us closer, I think, to the “unfollow” model of critical non-engagement, and further from a meaningful sociality of argumentation. It is as though the shared economic precariousness of students (especially grad students, whose precarity is intimately tied to their presence in a classroom) produces a curious form of mutually silencing solidarity, according to the logic of which, disagreeing with each other would be invite competition into the space, when collaboration should surely be the collective goal.
And I agree that it should be! So, are there collaborative, rather than competitive, models of pedagogical disagreement? I’ve been thinking for ages about the marvelous essay that Kyla Wazana Tompkins published here in 2016, in which she sets out to describe what makes a good question in a critical theory class. Tompkins’ bar is admirably high – read your difficult text three times!– and challenges us to use our feelings and intuitions as the embarkation point of a trajectory that will “move from theory to the world, and not back to you.”
That’s what I want my teaching to do, too – and to get there, I need to make more disagreement happen. It seems probable to me that, if I am nodding along with others more than I would like to, then others are nodding along with me more than they would like. So, in preparation for a grad class I’m teaching this semester, I’ve been inspired by Tompkins to make my own list — a list of tips to avoid coercing the assent of those who hear or read me.
My goal is to foster, in the seminar room, a world safe for disagreement, an environment where differences of interpretation (can we agree on what evidence a text presents?), analysis (can we agree on how to describe that evidence?), and politic (can we agree on what values to assign to that description?) all matter, but need not be consigned to the domain of pathology. None of these is intended to shame anybody, and I break most of them myself frequently, as I’ve said. But all are designed to affirm that assent to an intellectual proposition – like any and every other “yes” one might delight in hearing from another human being – is a value, not a right.
- Be argumentative;
- Don’t assume you agree with the person or people you’re speaking to, ever
- Be respectful and generous in your engagements, but don’t confuse your solidarity with others for agreement with them;
- Don’t speak over other people, ever;
- Don’t punctuate your speech with “right” unless you are prepared to entertain a contradictory idea;
- Make an earnest effort to characterize arguments you disagree with fairly, and don’t make fun of them;
- Relatedly, feel free to be funny if you can, but don’t try to cajole your interlocutors with good humor or sentimentality (no love-bombing; no “you get it”);
- Allow those with whom you engage the dignity of their own response to you and your thoughts, even and especially when they characterize the latter in terms that you would not;
- Do not be inflexible in your own arguments, and try to imagine, as you work through a position, what would persuade you of the contrary;
- Practice withholding assent from an argument with generosity, kindness, and honesty.
Jos Lavery is an assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley, specializing in Victorian literature and culture. They like George Eliot more than George Eliot likes them.