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 Think about it. A conversation between two people who share an interest in understanding one another will always be unique. It will follow its own course and rhythm, it will touch upon various things, diverge, return to the subject at hand, and be colored by each person’s knowledge, experiences, desires, resistances, etc. Most of all, a conversation between two particular people will be absolutely unique: it cannot be had when one of the two people is swapped out for someone else, it cannot be replicated, and it cannot be predicted in its outcomes. I am quite invested in and fascinated by the uniqueness of a conversation, which everyone knows just from observing two people talking in confidence and out of earshot: we know that what they are talking about is more than the mere exchange of information but the creation on new knowledge, or something of a ‘third’ nature that could not be produced by either of them alone.

This is the driving impulse behind Think About It: to lift the curtain on such conversations and to share with others the utterly unique and normally unrepeatable experience that unfolds when two people truly engage. I’m also motivated to model conversations, debate and dialogue as a mode of engaging with the other that is sorely lacking in today’s culture for several reasons (time, media, and politics are interlocking yet separate obstacles, as is social media’s designed preference for polemics). The other impulse is my desire to understand complicated things better with the help of people who’ve thought long and hard about them, and sometimes have lived through them. So if you like ideas, if you like conversations, and if you like to learn new and unexpected things, Think About It is for you.

Constructive conversations. Difficult dialogues. Honest exchanges. Informed opinions.

The first season is focused on free speech and related topics that roil human society; these conversations with some of our country’s (and the world’s) greatest legal minds, philosophers, sociologists, authors and students will continue. Find episodes on Great Books on the navigation menu in the upper right corner. Please subscribe. And review on iTunes etc.: it makes it more easily retrievable for new listeners. And: be in touch! I love to hear from listeners.

What is the Aim of a Conversation? What are its Rules? How does Dialogue Occur?

While preparing for a forthcoming episode with Professor Ann Stoler about the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, I came upon Foucault’s sharp distinction between polemics and conversation. The long quote below contains Foucault’s description of “the serious play of questions and answers…where a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the other,” and his reasons for not engaging in polemics which aim not to bring out a difficult truth but the triumph of a just cause that has been upheld from the beginning. In discussion, change occurs; in polemics, battles are won or lost.

Here’s the quote from Michel Foucault, given shortly before his untimely death in 1984:

Question [by Paul Rabinow]: Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics?

Michel Foucault: “I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of ‘infantile leftism,’ I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the other.
In this serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, etc. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercise is a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse is he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the other. Questions and answers depend on a game – a game that is at once pleasant and difficult – in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue.
The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on the legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.
Of course, the reactivation, and polemics, of these political, judiciary, or religious practices is nothing more than theater. One gesticulates: anathemas, excommunications, condemnations, battles, victories, and defeats are no more than ways of speaking, after all. And yet, in the order of discourse, they are also ways of acting which are not without consequence. They are the sterilizing effects: has anyone ever see a new idea come out of a polemic? And how could it be otherwise, given that here the interlocutors are incited, not to advance, not to take more and more risks in what they say, but to fall back continually on the rights that they claim, on their legitimacy, which they must defend, and on the affirmation of their innocence? There is something even more serious here: in this comedy, one mimics war, battles, annihilation‘s, or unconditional surrenders, putting forward as much of one’s killer instinct as possible. But it is really dangerous to make anyone believe that he can gain access to the truth by such paths, and thus to validate, even if in a merely symbolic form, the real political practices that could be warranted by it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that a magic wand is waved and one of the two adversaries in a polemic is given the ability to exercise all the power he likes over the other. One doesn’t even have to imagine it: one has only to look at what happened during the debates in the USSR over linguistics or genetics not long ago. Were these merely operant deviations from what was supposed to be the correct discussion? Not at all: they were the real consequences of a polemic attitude whose effects ordinarily remain suspended.”

 Michel Foucault interviewed by Paul Rabinow in 1984, published first as “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage, 2010, 381 – 383.