Opinion | Columns

The case against consensus

If we as a community have not quite been able to achieve real discourse, at least we have begun to discuss why this is the case. As a student—and more specifically, as a student who has worked to broaden dialogue in regards to the Israel-Palestine issue here at Columbia—I have taken great pleasure reading some of the pieces that have been recently published within these pages. Jake Goldwasser lamented the rejection of non-liberal discourse here at Columbia. Sarina Bhandari called on students to open their ears to new opinions and strive to learn from, not win, debates. And most recently, Leo Schwartz pointed to the way in which one’s identity too often precludes others from respecting their opinion. These pieces prove that my peers who have written in advocacy of better discourse have produced just that.

But I find something missing in these pieces—missing, too, in the way Columbia students, and perhaps all college students, approach discourse more generally. While we bravely promote notions of respect, tolerance, and dialogue, we often forget to think about why we are talking in the first place. Discourse—be it on politics, religion, economics, or feminism—has become something we do because it is the convention to do so, not because we aim to gain something tangible from the conversation. We’re so jealous of students who boast about having a mind-blowing 2 a.m. conversation about the existence of God that we want in on the discussion without even asking ourselves why it’s a discussion worth having. We do not shy away from discussing the tough issues, but we rarely immerse ourselves in the complexities of our words and arguments.

It’s hard to get good conversations going in the first place. In a campus environment, where the Students for Justice in Palestine refuses to talk to anyone who labels themselves as pro-Israel; where the Veritas Forum is one of the few campus groups bold enough to raise the big questions in an inclusive, frequent way; and where a student who finds fault with Obama, secular humanism, or feminism can’t find a platform to speak from, maintaining a civil and effective discourse at all is a tall order. And I do not mean this judgmentally: Pro-Palestinian students have reason not to talk to their pro-Israel counterparts, students who identify as pro-life see the world fundamentally differently than their pro-choice colleagues, and a stirring defense of biblical orthodoxy goes against the grain of the secular approach that we are all taught in Contemporary Civilization. Building a respectable campus dialogue is no small task. But we should not strive only for civil dialogue. We should strive for good dialogue.

What is good dialogue? I will defer here to Columbia’s motto: “In Thy light shall we see light,” a phrase that I believe relates to the endeavors of all those whose names we see on the top of Butler. A good conversation should aim to find the “light,” whatever it is. A good conversation should be an unapologetic, unguarded, serious discourse on any given issue. Good dialogue is able to escape from peripheral issues such as identity politics and conversational politeness, and aims to reach deeply into a given issue. It does not automatically reject the opposing side but approaches contrary viewpoints critically and attentively. It is free from the bland language of mutual agreeableness and goes straight to the heart of the matter.

Due to the diversity of identities in our environment, conversation has necessarily become about agreeableness and tolerance. But tolerance must not become the goal of meaningful conversation. Tolerance is a respectable thing, but it is a negative virtue. It tells us what not to do. There are also positive virtues—things that guide us in what we should do. While the search for the “rightest” set of virtues traces from Plato and Aristotle to a number of liberal and conservative thinkers in the 20th century, the idea that there is some kind of positive virtue to attain has remained constant in global thought. We should strive to continue the search in our own conversations—rejecting faulty ideas when they seem plainly wrong and building on ideas that appear to contain some inkling of what is good, useful, or truthful. We should stop confusing disagreement for intolerance, and we should not be afraid to stand up for our own views, as controversial as they may be. We should debate them, learn from others, and not expect acceptance.

The first step on this path is to remotivate ourselves. Bringing both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students to the table will be a success, but it will be less so if those involved fail to delve into the underlying factors tying each side to the same land. Bringing students of multiple faiths is noble, but the motivation for doing so should not be the beauty of seeing both views side by side but forcing both views to struggle with one another. This will be both daunting and challenging. There will always be those promoting discussion solely for discussion’s sake. But learning, after all, has never been easy.

Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

This is just wrong. Conservatives at Columbia always complain about how their voice is never heard, but have they thought for a second that maybe, for once, they should sit down and pass the mic to people who have been historically underrepresented and discriminated against? There's no argument against consensus when the consensus is opposition is just wrong on the issue.

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Yeesh posted on

This is an incredibly dangerous and scary way of thinking, and represents a lot of what is wrong at Columbia--circle jerking discussions with the rejection of alternative ideas.

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Yeesh posted on

This is an incredibly dangerous and scary way of thinking, and represents a lot of what is wrong at Columbia--circle jerking discussions with the rejection of alternative ideas.

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Anonymous posted on

"students who identify as pro-life" yes, both of them

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Luke Foster posted on

Many Columbians are pro-lifers. We're not as outspoken about it as we could or should be—we certainly have nothing like Choose Life at Yale's Vita et Veritas conference that happened this past weekend (http://yaleherald.com/culture/vita-et-veritas/). But people who love all human life, believing that every person is sacred, that no one is an accident or unwanted or meaningless, most certainly do exist. Columbia Right to Life last year published this amazing op-ed telling this amazing story: http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/12/02/student-mothers-burdens

I'd love to chat with you about these questions, if you'd honor me with your time! :)

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Howard Sachs/Washington DC posted on

Joshua; I take some time to see what young people are thinking about by reading fine essays like yours. I think you are missing some key points. The university in America is now one of the most anti-intellectual institutions in the country. As I mention to Jake G. in his fine piece, our colleges and universities are almost Leftist indoctrination seminaries now with their speech codes, faculties with 90-95% Leftist professors, banishment of thinkers with American values from campus life ( when was the last time you ever got to engage a conservative like Dennis Prager or George Will, Michael Medved , Hugh Hewitt or Mark Levin on campus),and rigid anti-American Leftist ideology firmly entrenched and based on Class/Race and Gender.

Most of your professors have never met, had coffee with or read a TeaParty conservative like me. They live in the intellectual Leftist bubble of Manhattan and the NYTimes OPED page. There is not a kid on your campus that has likely ever heard of some of America's greatest thinkers and writers like Professor Tom Sowell, Dennis Prager or Michael Medved. Professors Sowell and Williams are especially toxic to campuses because they are American conservatives with black skin- a horror for the Left! This is all combined with the Leftist notion that there is no essential truths in life. Diversity on campus is defined as how many Leftist blacks, Leftist women, Leftist gays, Leftist American Indians are enrolled. The toxic mix provides for gross destruction of the essence of the University, namely, to transmit and celebrate the great values of America and the West and put those values in perspective with an understanding and tolerance of other values.

Take a listen Joshua to http://www.prageruniversity.com/Political-Science/The-American-Trinity-2nd-Edition.html#.Ufvo5eBQNS8.

It's five minutes of what universities used to teach. It would be called repulsive by most of your "progressive" professors, this beautiful wise concept of Liberty/In God We Trust and E Pluribus Unum.

You seem particularly interested in the Middle East. Check our 5 min of Prager on this. The Left with its notion of moral relativism sees at best Israel and the Arabs as parties with equal complaint. People with American values see no such thing. We tolerate the Arab view and understand it but powerfully support the notion that Israel is the clear moral actor , the clear deep uplifting good guy in this conflict.

http://www.prageruniversity.com/Political-Science/The-Middle-East-Problem.html

That's why for $200,000 you get the degrading Leftism which lauds the collective statist views of the Democrat party/ mocks wealth creation and capitalism/ yawns at the profound crushing of our liberties by the Leviathan State/ is at the forefront of the moral degeneracy of bullying and denigrating Israel/ supports the radical anti-intellectual politicization of science by supporting the almost hysterical notions of carbon dioxide toxicity/ lauds moral relativity/ denies the presence of good and evil/ laughs at the concept of male female distinction/ and has little concept of honor, virtue and refinement. Can you imagine a conservative like me saying to you all, "part of college is to learn to be good strong ladies and gentlemen. Please fight against such dishonorable things like sex week on campus." The Left would LOL at such silliness. The only way out is to demand your utopian childlike administrators start teaching or allowing American values again on your campuses.

Civilizations die Joshua. Our Universities are leading the way into such darkness. I'm sorry for the waste of the $200 grand. I say this not to be mean . I say this with deep sadness for what we have wrought. sent with respect: good luck: Howard Sachs/Washington DC

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Luke Foster posted on

Dear Sir,

There's an awful lot wrong with American liberal arts colleges, certainly, and we need to rediscover a vocabulary of Truth. Are you familiar with the encouraging work that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute does to bring Goodness, Truth, and Beauty to college students?

This is a wonderful piece that points the way: http://dappledthings.org/83/the-telos-of-a-university/

Regards,
Luke Foster CC'15

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Michael Davis posted on

Do you even go here?

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