Sunday, June 13, 2010

A question of parenting

Imagine that I were a working- or lower-middle-class parent who sent my sixteen-year-old daughter across the country, driving alone because she liked to drive so much and she was such a good driver and I wanted her to express her independence. Imagine further that on the trip she had a horrible accident or was raped or killed. What kind of parent would I be? Who would be responsible? Who would we blame?
Now, imagine that I were a wealthy parent who put my child in an expensive sailboat and sent her around the world to sail, because she was such a good sailor and enjoyed sailing and I wanted her to express her autonomy. Imagine further that she got into trouble about halfway through her trip—quelle surprise—and that another country's government had to charter a passenger plane to try to find her and then had to rescue her. Would I be a good parent? Would it be just to ask that country's citizens to pick up the tab for my parenting decisions? Who should be blamed for the mess?
In short, what makes the second real parent better than the first hypothetical parent? And, what makes either of them better than the "Balloon Boy" parents?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Debate and discussion

In my own life—partly real and partly virtual—and in my observation of what passes for discourse in modern culture, I find myself thinking about the difference between debate and discussion. This is largely because, while I was trained and care to discuss, most people want to debate. 
It seems to me that there is a lot of truth—and a lot of Aristotelianism and Thomism—in the notion that any activity is defined partly and largely by the good or end at which it aims. For instance, the difference between a marriage and a fling is in part defined by what the two are for. 
Debate, it seems to me, aims primarily at winning. Winning might be defined in different ways: in an Oxford-style debate, it is defined by net change in opinion in an audience; in a political debate, it is decided by pundits and pollsters and ultimately voters; in a forensics debate, it is determined by judges. Of course, related to winning in this sense is convincing—or exhibiting convincingness—but this sort of convincing takes it as a given that the debaters will not themselves be swayed. Like Luther, they stand where they are and can do no other.
Discussion, on the other hand, seems to aim at truth. Of course, truth is an abstract thing to be aiming at. But in a genuine discussion—a dialectic, even—the parties are aiming to get to some best view. And, it is inherent in this pursuit that each recognizes that he may not already have the truth himself, that his discussion partner may have some of it or even all of it on her side. Discussion, that is, relies on a recognition of one's own fallibility in a way that discussion doesn't, but this also means that discussion has the possibility of moving both parties to somewhere new. And, that somewhere new might even be knowledge. Debate won't take one there.
We live in a society of debate it seems, where convincing is king, as it was for the sophists. It's a shame we've given up on discussion.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

No, dude, I was just kidding

In many ways in contemporary society, we are less civil and more forward than we have been in a long time. Or, at least, we are so in many more contexts. There are so many things said to me by students, for example, that utterly surprise me for no other reason than I cannot have imagined myself having said anything similar when I was in college.
But, we seem to have adopted a new strategy, both in person and in the virtual realm: the strategy of saying "just kidding" or "I was only joking".
This seems to get used in two different but related contexts. In one case, a person will say something utterly insulting or indefensible or factually insupportable or sexist or racist or clearly uncalled for and then follow it with "just kidding". In the other, a person makes a statement and then, afraid that they might be wrong, following it with the same.
Though the situations are very different, it seems in both cases there is both a statement of one's real character or knowledge or ignorance and then a wish that it wasn't so. If you know who are and aren't happy about it or ashamed about it, it seems that you have two choices: fix yourself or own up to it. This attempt to have it both ways, I think, shows the basest lack of character.