To be honest…with Edward Townsend

To be honest, I have been a fool.

Over this past weekend, I was inadvertently led to a jarring realization, one that has left me unsettled and profoundly disconcerted. In the years prior to my coming to William Jewell College, I thought I had discovered an infallible ideal of personal conduct, one that prescribes a foundational humility, patience and discipline. This weekend’s realization doesn’t contradict the significance of this template, but it did upend my perception of how well I have practiced it. My humanity, it seems, is inescapable.

The circumstance of my epiphany could not be more ordinary. It occurred amidst my helping with the debate tournament Jewell hosted Sunday afternoon. As the competition was winding down and most of the work was completed, I found myself sitting at a table with two debate coaches and two students. The conversation between the five of us began slowly, and was easy at the beginning. We talked about movies, television and stand-up comedy lightly and playfully. I considered my companions’ preferences and felt welcome to share my own.

I can’t recall the specific catalyst for the turn, but all of a sudden, we were arguing. The particular topic and arguments are not important, but some context might be: I was the sole defender of my position, and the issue was one on which I am very opinionated. A switch was flipped in me. I was no longer an eager and amiable conversationalist, but a readied combatant.

Suddenly the interaction – and my “contributions” – had an entirely different energy. I became stubborn, mean, smug and patronizing. I was self-righteous. I defended my position relentlessly, and thoughtlessly, without consideration for the feelings of my peers. I felt victimized, sensing a disdain and dismissiveness emanating from my newfound opponents. In those moments, it felt as if my competence and ideological dignity were under attack, and instinct coerced me into a rash defense.

This account benefits some from hindsight, but perhaps the most personally troubling variable was that I knew exactly what was happening at the time. Clichéd as this might be, it was as if I was hovering above my body, watching myself do things I knew I would regret, that I knew were neither effective nor productive. My confidence in my position, in its self-evident validity and virtue, seemed to justify succumbing to whatever reactionary defense I could conjure.

Eventually, the argument died down and the contentiousness petered out. No one was satisfied, but everyone was tired.

It seems prudent here to interject with an explanation, to elaborate on the rubric for thoughtful conduct that I mentioned at this article’s outset. In the past few years, I have become enamored with the idea of rigorous critical inquiry as a foundation for encountering all spheres of life. It has had a deep resonance with me, especially when contrasted with other templates by which I have been ensnared.

Throughout my life, I have gravitated toward ideologies with certain ethical and practical outlooks. The beliefs and conclusions they hold are finite and unambiguous. I have been an atheist: I was certain God does not exist. I have been a Marxist: I was certain that capitalism is amoral. I have been a Democrat: I was certain that Republicans are fools. These prescriptions were satisfying and offered a comfortable lens through which I viewed the world. My ultimate experience with all these rigid templates, though, was confusion. Invariably, I would find myself in disagreement with my fellow disciples and our doctrines. None of them were infallible, and each had its own distinct limitations.

Rigorous critical analysis, as a guiding principle for evaluating all my actions and affiliations, was a new religion for me. It separated itself from the confines of my previous tribal infatuations. Its only fundamental requirement was that one weigh all variables and engage with ideas without bias or preconceived truth. Humility in intellectual pursuits is the vital dictum. One must always be prepared to have one’s position uprooted by a better one. Though this seems obvious, I had not considered that one could be this discerning or nuanced in one’s opinions. The preponderance of hard-lined factions in our world had tricked me into thinking that I had to align myself with one of them. With this new wisdom, I felt uniquely empowered and began putting it into practice.

While overall this has served me well, it set a dubious trap. I am not sure I had become aware of it until I digested my conversation from Sunday. Though the tenets of critical inquiry are elevated above any specific dogma, its practice not immune to a dogmatic approach. Critical thought advocates formulating a response instead of acquiescing to a reaction, to ignore immediate feelings and instincts. This, though, is impossible. I will always be plagued by my humanity, by my hunger and lust and emotions. They can be kept at bay at times, but they always find a way to permeate my opinions. Despite my declared preference for critical inquiry and my proclamation that I will embrace its core maxims, I am nevertheless subject to the whirlwind of my self-centered experience.

My inattention to these basic human foibles culminated in my shameful participation in Sunday’s conversation. The social current of the interaction overwhelmed me, and I found myself acting in a way that I knew to be undignified and about which I am ashamed. I am not debilitated, but I am certainly humbled. Though my vigilance is renewed in vigor, I know now to be ready for it to abate. The real practical skill of critical thinking, I have discovered, is to confront my limitations and weaknesses constantly.

On this hilltop, in our self-proclaimed sanctuary of critical thought, students, staff and administration ought be weary of our stated mission obscuring the tedious work it demands. Eschew certainty and entertain uncomfortable alternatives. Though we have articulated our mission, our work has no end in sight.

Photo by Sofia Arthurs-Schoppe.

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