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Conversation Killers
Joseph De Feo • Are Yale Students Nothing But Mammals?
September 2000

My name is Joseph.  Which college are you in?  Where did you say you were from? Uh huh.  And what are your thoughts on the death penalty? 

In the midst of standard first-week pleasantries, few people would take such a plunge into substance. After the first few weeks of school, most people who in the first week here chatted or exchanged a simple hello will cease to wave, nod, or even make eye contact. And that is because they have nothing more to say. The meaningless chatter has been exhausted; further social interaction would require new material. 

It will soon become obvious to any freshman that our collegiate intelligentsia limits most conversations to swaps of verbal filler, mostly hollow pleasantries. That we still have the filler is a miracle; it is a remnant of courtesy. Asking one's college is mannerly, but it is mere tonic. And tonic can rarely be appreciated without gin. 

Activism thrives here. Many people protest, yell, and even talk, but few listen. Conversation as crucial intellectual exchange has been devalued. This is due in part to the ascendancy of relativism. As long as he believes that truth is socially constructed, varying from culture to culture or person to person, the relativist can sleep soundly knowing that he is not wrong, because no one is really wrong—relativism confers a type of infallibility on humans. The relativist has no reason to pursue truth with any rigor, so less is at stake in a conversation; no relativist would see the point in a dialogue as massive as Plato's Republic, fueled by scotch and lasting until the janitors throw you out of Trumbull common room after dawn so that they may vacuum. And whether they admit it or not, a startling number of Yale students (both liberals and others) are functional relativists.  Relativists can invent their values in solitude and ignore debate; social interaction for them can be reduced to pleasantries, gossip, drunkenness, or other more…earthy concerns. 

But if we believe that we cannot invent truth, we must search for it, and it helps to have a search party; thus real conversation becomes an essential element of our education. Some students will admit that they received a diploma from the university, but an education from a debating society.  Relativists, seeking or inventing an internal or personal "truth," can confine themselves to weenie bins—nouveaux hermits. 

Relativism presents a positive claim, i.e., that relativism is true, while holding that no such claims are possible (all truths are relative). If relativism is helpless to defend itself—let alone anything else—we can cast it aside and look elsewhere. Conversation becomes possible again. Many of the conversations that do occur are derailed by bad philosophy, intellectual apathy, or a desire to avoid insensitivity. And countless debates that should occur do not; poorly considered notions like so many gauntlets are tossed to the ground, and there they stay.  Even "provocative" comments fail to provoke. The solution is simply to engage in serious debate whenever possible, to challenge the unchallenged phrases that are thrown about every day. What follows is a list of a few such utterances that are bandied thoughtlessly or with malice aforethought, along with their sordid legacies or consequences. 

"That is just your opinion." This phrase is the all-purpose defense for a relativist, and should be thrashed thoroughly lest it continue to strangle debate. A multiplicity of opinions does not mean that no one opinion reflects the truth. The relativist, running with the sophist Protagoras's notion that "Man is the measure of all things," often believes that reality is socially constructed.  Since "truths" are different for different people, normative statements become impossible. The relativist cannot even deem our customs preferable to those of a culture that protects slavery. A comparison cannot be made without absolute standards independent of both cultures, which would negate relativism and imply an absolute morality. Some resort to a relativist system in the belief that it will promote tolerance. However, such a motivation assumes that tolerance is an absolute value, and that would again falsify relativism. 

Which calls to mind the second-most popular phrase of the enemy: "You should be more tolerant." This dictum also hinders debate: tolerance, in this understanding, is the enemy of truth.  Some who urge tolerance proclaim an Era of Hurt Feelings, and wish to blunt the edges of truth lest anyone get scratched. Others fear Reformation-style violence among ideological opponents. Tolerance, when it is more than an agreement not to kill our debating partners, is a bromide for the cowardly and complacent. 

Tolerance means accepting the errors of others, and hoping that they will return that dubious courtesy. Its cowardice is exhibited not only in unwillingness to posit or defend truth, but also in the reluctance to invest care in others, or to love.  Tolerance distances us from others. 

"Are you insane?" I imagine that many of us have been asked this question, sometimes without good reason. This is one symptom of a larger illness, the medicalization of contrary politics. It has become increasingly common for some to spout accusations of mental imbalance at those who disagree with them. A recent example of this tendency would be Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, who expressed valid (albeit wrong) opinions and was subsequently subjected to psychological tests.  Those who urge such tests assume that those who disagree with them should not be engaged in debate of any sort, but instead re-educated, medicated, or lobotomized. 

Along the same lines, those who are up for a debate ought to challenge any of the hordes of dining hall psychiatrists who dish out helpings of talk show-style psychobabble at every opportunity.  Their most frequent advice is to "let it all out."  "Repression isn't healthy," they say, quoting Oprah's misreading of something Freud wrote on a cocktail napkin. In this view anger is like a black substance in the body that misaligns the humors and requires leech therapy. Forgiveness is not an option; one must always vent, yell, or do some such inglorious thing.  Aside from creating a society that knows nothing of dignified restraint, this line of thinking encroaches on the idea of personal control over emotions, reducing the individual to a plumber who merely directs the flow of anger but cannot check it. 

Where else will one hear things that merit attack? 

One need only walk across Old Campus and listen to the music blaring through an open window. There remain many unquestioned but questionable points in popular culture. "You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals/So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."  This is more than customary vulgarity. The lines are not innocent enough to be a mere utilitarian celebration of bodily pleasure. They betray an almost Manichean understanding of the world, in which all matter is evil and only spirit is good.  Since there is no way to purify matter, what we do with our matter does not matter. The lyrics convey the idea of submission to raw animal instinct, but there is something uniquely human about the singer's self-conscious perversity. We sense that he is more attracted to the perversity of his actions than to his lover. He displays the pervasive self-centered mindset that destroys the human connection that conversation, and ultimately critical thinking, requires. 

Yale's landscape glitters with gauntlets thrown down and forgotten. Wellington supposedly said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. If our wars are to be determined here, then we have our work cut out for us. 

—Joseph De Feo, Senior Editor, is a Senior in Timothy Dwight College.

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