This is the fifth in a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.
I write to the sound of drums beating and people chanting just outside my window. The graduate students are on strike, and I have crossed picket lines to be in my office. Later today, I will cross them again to teach my class. Many students will not show up to class, some of them may be in the picket line. But we are behaving civilly: they do not physically prevent me from entering buildings, and I respect their right to protest. After the strike, education will resume as usual.
It says something about the concept of civility that our behavior qualifies as such. For instance, civility can’t amount to mere politeness. Shouting and banging is not polite; nor am I manifesting many social graces in my response to it. Likewise, if civility were agreeableness or friendliness, our interactions would not count as civil: they are not smiling at me, I am not smiling at them. But civility runs deeper than politeness, friendliness or agreeableness.
I think what we mean by civility is: respect for the another person’s distinct perspective. Such a perspective is both a source of benefit—a font of new ideas—and a constraint on intrusion—your interlocutor has a right to her own opinion. You may offer your arguments, but it is, at the end of the day, up to her to make up her own mind. Civility is rooted in the freedom of thought, which sets each of us as sovereign ruler over the private kingdom of our mind. It entails being able to agree to disagree.
Civility in this deeper sense might seem unobjectionable, but in fact there is someone who objects to it: Socrates. Readers of Plato often come away with the impression that Socrates is aggressive, hostile, tricky, relentless, sophistical and arrogant. Even when he acts nice, they think he’s actually, secretly, being mean: ironic, insincere, manipulative. As a staunch defender of the Socratic Way, I must nonetheless acknowledge that this negative impression has some basis in the truth: Socrates has an abnormally invasive conversational agenda.
Civility encourages us to approach conversation as a kind of potluck. If you bring your arguments to the table, and I bring mine, each of us stands to find something of value on offer. Even if no one’s mind is changed, the encounter passes enjoyably enough: no one tries to shove anything down anyone’s throat; everyone is correspondingly polite about what she turns down: “No aspic for me, thanks!” The great thing about ideas is that I don’t lose what you take from me, so the more sharing the better.
If you anticipated such a positive sum exchange, Socrates’s efforts to bend you to his argumentative will come off as downright violent. For instance, consider what happens when Protagoras tries to avoid saying whether he thinks justice is pious: “What’s the difference? If you want, we’ll let justice be pious and piety just.” Socrates has none of it: “Don’t do that to me! It’s not this ‘if you want’ or ‘if you agree’ business I want to test. It’s you and me I want to put on the line, and I think the argument will be tested best if we take the ‘if’ out.”
Socrates doesn’t let you choose what you bring to the table. Nor does he let you choose what you eat: his refutations snatch plates out from under the noses of his interlocutors, trashing their carefully prepared contributions. The Gorgias ends with a list of all the beliefs he has managed to force-feed his interlocutors.
Why won’t Socrates let people draw their own conclusions? What looks like an aggressive impulse—extracting concessions, rubbing their faces in their defeat—is actually a collaborative one. Attempts at cognitive collaboration are liable to feel like an invasion of your personal space when you are used to seeing your mind as even more private than your body. Socrates’s rejection of mental integrity is most evident when the stakes are highest. After Socrates has been sentenced to death, the day before he is to be executed, his friend Crito desperately tries to induce him to escape. Socrates responds:
Let us examine the question together, my dear friend, and if you can make any objection while I am speaking, make it and I will listen to you, but if you have no objection to make, my dear Crito, then stop now from saying the same thing so often, that I must leave here against the will of the Athenians. I think it important to persuade you before I act, and not to act against your wishes.
Socrates thinks that he has to either convince Crito or be convinced by him. And vice versa: throughout the dialogue, Socrates reiterates that Crito must persuade or be persuaded. Those are the only options Socrates thinks anyone ever has.
We might agree with Socrates that there are arenas that work like this. For instance if we are co-teaching a class, I cannot change the syllabus without consulting you; if we’re buying a car together, we must agree on our budget; if we’re playing poker, we need to decide on the rules. In such cases, I don’t have complete autonomy; instead you and I must proceed by agreement. At a general level, democracies determine many features of communal life by way of some form of agreement. Nonetheless, we tend to think of those agreements as framing an inner sphere of freedom in which we are allowed to act as we see fit, without securing another’s permission; moreover, we rarely need permission to speak as we see fit; and we never take ourselves to need permission to think as we see fit.
Socratic philosophy targets that innermost sphere. It challenges freedom of thought, by proposing agreement as the way to proceed not only in (some cases of) action, but also in (all cases of) speech and thought. Neither of us is allowed to hold beliefs on any matter where she cannot produce conviction in the other. Persuade or be persuaded, those are the only options.
Now Socrates himself would object to being labeled an opponent of civility. Socrates always prefers to turn the linguistic tables: he’d insist that his oddball gadfly approach amounts to true civility. He might point out that etymologically the word “civility” comes from the Latin civis—citizen—and that the demand to think by agreement couldn’t be more citizenly: it proposes to settle all questions by the method appropriate to political ones. So who is right? Which is the true civility, his kind or ours?
Because “Socratic civility” takes refutation as its modus operandi, it makes people angry. People felt hurt and disrespected by what Socrates did to them, and eventually they killed him for it. One might argue, against Socrates, that it is more truly civil to live and let live.
The problem comes when you can’t: Abortion. Universal health care. Immigration. Taxation. Facebook privacy. Sexism. Racism. Transphobia. Prisons. Poverty. Education. Unions. When one of our perspectival differences becomes a load-bearing political question, the idea of agreeing to disagree doesn’t work anymore. If each of us accepts that at the end of the day we cannot change one another’s minds, and each of us also thinks that in this case things must go my way, we are in quite a bind.
That is the bind I’m in. I’ve been called upon by the union to cancel class to accommodate the strike. But, as I see it, that would amount to using educational harms to undergraduates as an instrument to achieve graduate students’ ends. Such an action seems immoral to me, for reasons articulated by Immanuel Kant: you are not allowed to use people merely as a means. But what if I am wrong? What if my perspective is incorrect? Emails from many students convince me that they are torn, as well. I thought: let us approach this philosophically, by gathering in a classroom, some evening this week, and debating the ethics of striking.
For the first time in my decade of teaching at the University of Chicago, I have encountered resistance to a proposed university event on account of content. I was told I should check with higher ups. I was told that this is not the right time to have this conversation, because tensions are high. “The strike is the conversation.” What if I am perceived as discouraging union activity? What if that sours my relations with graduate students? What if it tarnishes the name of my event series?
I am lucky enough to work in one of the most intellectually open places the world has ever known. The pressures are not strong enough to stop me from holding my event. But they are there. The dark secret of un-Socratic civility is that it cannot avoid holding force in reserve. The force may be physical; it may involve damaging rhetoric; it may involve leveraging social pressures to exclude an undesirable viewpoint. One way or another, we stop listening.
Un-Socratic civility is sunshine and smiles until it isn’t. It threatens to plunge us into darkness as soon as we decide “this time, it actually matters.” For all its relentless, aggressive intrusiveness, Socratic civility does have the virtue of refusing to allow our violent impulses extraconversational expression.
Socrates wouldn’t respect the point of view of the protesters outside his window. He would want to know who is right and who is wrong, and he wouldn’t stop talking to them until the difference between points of view was obliterated. Persuade or be persuaded.
Read a response to this column by David Kretz here.