John Sexton

Dogmatism Versus Civil Discourse

VTR Date: November 7, 2005

John Sexton discusses pervasive dogmatism in American society.


GUEST: Dr. John Sexton
VTR: 11/07/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I used to introduce today’s guest with some reference or other to what he himself calls “the two worlds that have been central to [his] own life – the world of faith and the world of learning”.

Raised in Brooklyn in the cauldron of Irish Catholicism, educated by Jesuits at Fordham, where he earned his BA in history, his MA in comparative literature, and his Ph.D. in the history of American Religion … John Sexton also is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, was law clerk at the Supreme Court of the United States to Chief Justice Warren Burger, and then Dean of New York University’s prestigious law school.

Now he is the President of NYU. My guest has, indeed, led a life devoted both to the world of faith and to the world of learning!

But in a quite extraordinary recent essay John Sexton sees both worlds threatened by what he calls “a startlingly pervasive dogmatism in American society” that “combining with the political reality of a divided America is undermining the style and substance of civil discourse”.

And I would begin today by asking my guest to elaborate on this key sentence: “When I say dogmatism,” he writes, “I deliberately use a word with religious overtones; but I deliberately use it to denote a habit of mind – a close-mindedness or lack of intellectual openness – that is more secular than religious”. Explain yourself, John.

SEXTON: Well, I think the phenomenon I observe and in talking to leaders around the world, my suspicion is it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but I claim it only for the United States. The phenomena I describe is this habit of mine, this, this tendency towards simplicity, an allergy to nuance and complexity.

Which has been associated in the popular media with the rise of the political power of fundamentalists in the United States. But I believe that that kind of dogmatism … that theological dogmatism, the importation of theology into politics, is a small part of a much more general problem.

I think in fact that pervasively in our society there’s this appetite for simplicity and an allergy to nuance and complexity. And I think that the results if, if, if we don’t address this dogmatism, whatever its causes … if we don’t address this pervasive dogmatism the results for our society and for our universities will be disastrous.

And I attempt in my reflection to, to both delineate the causes, the extent and some of the solutions that I see. Or at least a role that universities can play in attempting to reverse this, this, this horrible trend.

HEFFNER: What is the role that universities can play?

SEXTON: Well …

HEFFNER: I mean, excuse me, John, you say that even within the life of the university you find this dogmatism.

SEXTON: Oh, yeah. I mean this truly is a pervasive phenomena and I think it can be said that first, universities are perhaps the last, best hope of our society for preventing a kind of collapse into dogmatism that would be pernicious in terms of civil discourse. We just don’t do civil discourse well in our society these days and, and I think universities that deal inherently in complexity and nuance have a role to play in kind of witnessing out and, and modeling, to society as a whole, the, the way to have a serious conversation.

I think if they don’t do that, that it’s not just society that will suffer, but the universities themselves will be increasingly marginalized. Because as seriousness becomes marginalized, then obviously the institutions that deal most with seriousness, complexity and nuance will, themselves, be marginalized.

I think you would see these trends working themselves out. Not only the trend that I associated a moment ago with the word dogmatism, but the trend of the increasing marginalization of seriousness in our society and, and the concomitant deleterious impact of that on universities.

HEFFNER: How do you account for this?

SEXTON: Well, I … it’s complex. I tried to explain some of it in, in the reflection and I don’t pretend to have hit upon all of the answers. But, you know, you start with the emergence in this time and place. Not for the first time, but in a powerful way of theological politics; of people, I think most obviously the fundamentalists, but not just the fundamentalists, who in a way prize, ironically, political power over theological power. So, so you see strange theological alliances in support of political agendas.

The alliance of the fundamentalists and some parts of my own church, the Catholic church, is stark in, in this regard. So you, you start with the emergence of that theological politics. But then you get to the broader problem that I tried to develop. And that is this pervasive dogmatism, which is not based at all on theology.

And where does that come from? Starts off with the shrinking attention span of Americans. The raising of a generation that requires, doesn’t just enjoy … as, as all of us do, but requires almost a consistent diet of hyper stimulation. But, but surface hyper stimulation.

The, the movement of … down to the sound bite from, from even the paragraph to the sentence to the sound bite. The blending of entertainment and, and news. The development of feedback channels for information to where we seek the information we know will not trouble us. So, so we seek our news, for example, from the stations which will give us the news that we find politically palatable; will give us, you know, that slant.

The vast, overwhelming unfiltered, yes … that might be good in some ways, bad in others … but, but uncorroborated amount of data that’s out there, you know. The over supply of information, but without any standards associated with it so that you can’t, you have the development of the pseudo-fact. And, and this, this … even for the most sophisticated of, of listener it creates a kind of unwillingness to rely on the information except the information that supports ones views.

All of these things begin to develop a kind of what I’ll call “secular” dogmatism that’s much more pervasive than the theological dogmatism connected to politics that’s gotten the attention of the media. And the result is that we just … we, we collapse into a kind of intellectual relativism and a conversation stopper can become “Well, that’s your opinion. I’ve got my opinion.” And we’re not engaging each other because this bleeds over, immediately, into political discourse. You see it in our candidates, you see it in our campaigns, you see it in the way we govern ourselves and, and that’s where the danger to the civil discourse comes.

HEFFNER: You know, I know a few people who I would more consistently identify as optimistic in their life approach, than John Sexton, the President of NYU. Yet, what you describe, in a sense, has no end. It is a path down which we must continue to go. No? I mean you’re describing the essence of contemporary life and you’re either saying “We’re going to hell in a wheel basket.” Or you’re saying something that I don’t quite get; somewhere we can get ahold of this, turn it around.

SEXTON: I, I, I … there’s not doubt that part of what I’m describing is a devolution in, in civic discourse. And I find it alarming. I find it dangerous.

HEFFNER: No one disagrees with you, right? No one would be able to stand up and say, “This is not true.”

SEXTON: I find it’s almost impossible to create any proposition with which no one will disagree. But, but, whatever. I think that … what I’m saying is persuasive to most. I am, however, as you say, characteristically an unabashed Teilhardian optimist. I believe in Father Teilhard de Chardin’s message of progress. He, you might remember, combined Catholic theology and the doctrine of evolution in the forties and fifties. I, I believe in that. And I believe there are, are solutions.

My mentor, a man named Ewert Cousins who embarked upon the most amazing migration of openness I’ve ever seen. When I met him in 1963 he was perhaps the world’s leading expert on St. Anselm the medieval theologian of the church. When I came to NYU in 1981 he invited me up to the United Nations for the celebration of his sixty volume work on world spirituality. Sixty volumes that incorporated twenty-five different faith traditions. What a migration of kind of openness … he now is able to return to his Christianity and see it through the eyes of these 25 faith traditions far more richly than he had before. A real examination of Christianity, the Vatican Council intended us to do.

What’s the connection? Today Ewert would say that we’re, we’re entering or have entered some where over the last 100 years what he calls the second axial age. First Axial Age that period between 800 B.C. and 200 A.D. that thousand year stretch. We saw individuality emerge. A robust notion of individuality, all around the world. Whether it be Socrates or Lao T’su or Christ or Moses. There was individuality emerging during that period. Now I’m the President of a University in Greenwich Village … you don’t have to tell me …


SEXTON: (Laughter) You don’t have to tell me about individuality. You could see anything on a street in Greenwich Village on any given day. Today that notion has fully flowered. And Uward says we’re moving into the Second Axial Age. That’s where, you know, world made miniature. A world where the other is pressed upon us. Where you can’t avoid the other, the inscrutable frustrating “other”. In, in that world, the pluralism and diversity, where things that happen around the world affect us.

How do we create community? How do we now discover community without homogenizing … right … without homogenizing, so … without turning every coffee in to Starbucks. How, how do we create community and, you know, his theory of planetization, as his would call it. His theory and mine to be described in a metaphor to, to a watch … a fine watch where there are elements, each one identifiable, each one a magnificent piece of work, but interconnecting to create a whole greater than the sum.

That is a basic Teilhardian progressiveness at work, okay? Teilhard’s trilogy of emergence, divergence, convergence into the emergence of something still greater.

HEFFNER: And what do you see?

SEXTON: If we’re at that moment …


SEXTON: … then you see, yes, we’re, we’re witnessing in a way the, the rapid diffusion but there will come an answer which will pull us together as communities. And we will create then a community that is much more rich.

That is why I tell the story of Ewert. You come to a point where you’re back, but now you’re armed with, with a much richer and much more textured and nuanced and complex way of understanding things. That’s where the university is the key in my view. That’s where our universities have to … not withdraw, not see what’s going on as an attack that requires them to create the intellectual equivalent of, of gated communities.

Gated communities won’t work in this world of the Second Axial Age. They won’t work for populations any more than they’ll work for universities. We have to avoid that retreat. Instead we have to take what we do well, which is deal with complexity, deal with nuance and witness it out and model it out to the world.

HEFFNER: Are we doing that?

SEXTON: I think we’re beginning to do that. I, I think what is required is that people who understand universities, leaders of universities, others who know universities well, have to step out and have to say, “Now wait a minute. First, this is a problem. The way we’re running our civic discourse. And second there’s a better way to do it. And we will shame those who don’t do it that better way. We will honor those who do it that better way, and we will show how it’s done on our own university campuses.”

HEFFNER: You talk about discourse coalition. How does that relate to what you just said we must do.

SEXTON: Well, you know, my friend Pete Peterson and Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas put together what they call a “Concord Coalition” which was a broad-based coalition around the difficult issues of the budget and, and they were able to create a kind of platinum standard … against which thinking people, at least, could begin to make judgments about various budgetary moves.

What I think has to be done is we have to create a discourse coalition. A, a .. this has to be led, I think, by a group of citizens from across the political spectrum. I think it has to involve university presidents who are willing to devote energy and time and resources to this, to this issue.

And it has to do a set of things. It has to … this coalition first of all has to call attention to the problem. Second of all, it has to, as I’ve just said begin to shame and honor people who, who contribute to the problem, more contribute to moving away from this to a higher level of discourse. And, and then it has to, I think, create examples of best practices. Convenient conversations. And within universities begin to build into the DNA of the graduates of our universities a kind of … a habit of mind that has them coming out of our colleges and certainly our graduate and professional schools as engaged citizens, informed engaged citizens who are going to both demand of the people they follow in politics and when they move into politics themselves, exemplify a willingness to do things that are difficult to do in the Red and Blue structure of our present politics. I think it can be done and I’m optimistic about it.

HEFFNER: And yet you write about the consuming, consuming Coliseum culture in which we live.

SEXTON: Right. Well we, you know there’s a wonderful book by, by Albert Hirschman, called “The Rhetoric of Reaction”. And Hirschman, an economist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton … now in his nineties, I think … but he wrote this book in 1991, Richard … 1991 and to him the words “progressive” and “reactionary” are neutral words. They just mean where you are in a push/pull movement. But he goes in. He studies three, three large movements. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Equality Revolution.

And he shows that there are archetypical rhetoric forms that reactionaries, resisting these movements used. And then he shows, interestingly enough, that there are archetypical rhetorical forms that Progressives use in answering them. And he says in a, especially in a binary democracies, in all democracies, but especially in a binary democracy, these two rhetorical forms work them … their way out. And here he comes … and remember this is 1991, he says, “The end of the process is an inscrutable frustrating otherness, where each side is looking at the other and is saying, ‘how did they ever get to be that way?’”

Now, he feels in this book, which is a perfect description, of course, of where we are in the United States in 2005 … you know, fourteen years after he wrote it … he feels that understanding those rhetorical forms and trying to develop new ways of talking is part of the answer to avoiding this, this chasm between us.

I think he’s on to something. I, I add the modeling role of the university here. But we’ve, we’ve got to call what’s going on. I, I had a friend, as you know my discipline is law, among other things. And Constitutional law in particular. And I have a friend who is a frequent guest on these television talk shows where they, they get a person from the Right and a person from the Left and they come at an issue. Right?

So, so, she is a, a woman with long blonde hair and she’s Liberal. And she says they love to put her on with one of the long blonde haired Conservative women, okay? So there it is presenting itself … a particularly important Supreme Court decision had come down. And she got a call from one of these shows. And the producer, who she knew, said, “Well, professor, you know what’s your view of this? This particular opinion?”

And she said, “Well, you know, the court dealt with a difficult issue and this is what was right about it, and this is what was wrong about it and she gave about a fifteen minute …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … and at the end of the fifteen minutes, the producer said to her, “You know that’s the most interesting explanation of this, of this opinion I’ve heard from anybody. But do you think the court was right or wrong?”

HEFFNER: (Laugher)

SEXTON: And she went into it again, you know, little nuance, complexity and so forth. And at the end, at the end of this second explanation, the producer said, “You know Professor I think we’ll get someone else for the show.”

HEFFNER: No nuance here.

SEXTON: No nuance here. And that’s what we’ve done to ourselves. That’s what we’ve done to ourselves. I watched all 40 of the Democratic Presidential debates, Richard. In the first debate, on his issue John Edward said, “I didn’t vote for NAFTA, I grew up in a mill town, my Dad lost his job.” In the 40th debate he said exactly the same things. Only in the editorial meeting with The New York Times is it reported that he was asked, “Would you repeal NAFTA?” The question that one of my high school debaters would have asked first, right after he sat down … “Would you repeal NAFTA?” And he said, “No.”

Now, we’ve created a structure where it’s difficult for someone to ask that question in a Presidential debate. And we wonder why our civic discourse is collapsing. It’s not just … it’s not just the talk shows. It’s this pervasive need for simplicity. Which, by the way has gotten a lot worse, a lot worse in our so-called security obsessed society. We’re, we’re in almost an Orwellian way … we’re reminded every day in all kinds of ways to be afraid. And fearful people want simply answers.

HEFFNER: John, we have just a few minutes left. I want to make one observation and that is that over the near fifty years that this program has been on the air, when my guests, like you have talked about some really difficult problem, and I asked, “What do you see as helping with it’s solution?” Whatever the answer I get, it isn’t until off the air that my guests will most frequently say to me, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say, “Seems to me that it will take a great depression or a great war or a great calamity of one kind or another.” What do you see as reversing, besides saying “We must change”?

SEXTON: MmmHmm. Right now, in America, higher education, complexity and nuance of thought don’t even make the top five priorities when we list. Homeland Security, defense, Social Security, health care, K through 12 education. I think we’ve got to come to understand that just as we did after World War II that the single most important thing we can do is invest in thought and thought at the most complex and nuanced level. We’ve got to develop a toleration for it, so that when people speak to us in ways that are complex and nuanced, we appreciate it. We’re not allergic to it. And I think we’ve got to develop major leadership and public structures that encourage that kind of conversation. And begin to create a world in which we come to understand that the kind of thought and research that goes on at our great university campuses really underpins the solutions to all five of those problems. And if we don’t support the universities and if the universities don’t undertake the obligation to get in this game of what’s going on in our society and if, if they don’t … if they don’t resist the temptation to withdraw, when under attack, we won’t get any solutions to those five issues.

HEFFNER: You think they’ll do what you urge them to do?

SEXTON: I think … I think there are leaders in this country prepared to undertake this battle right now and I think they will do it and I will be there with them.

HEFFNER: John Sexton, I really appreciate your joining me again here on The Open Mind. I’m going to ask you, maybe in a few months, maybe in a year or two, to see whether … to ask whether you’re optimistic about what you want to have happen is happening. Thank you for joining me today.

SEXTON: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.