John Sexton

The University and Civil Discourse, Part II

VTR Date: November 9, 2006

John Sexton discusses dogmatism Vs. civil discourse.


GUEST: Dr. John Sexton
VTR: 11/09/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And whenever I introduce today’s guest I refer to what he himself calls “the two worlds that have been central to life – the world of faith and the world of learning.”

For John Sexton was raised in Brooklyn in a cauldron of Irish Catholicism, educated by Jesuits at Fordham, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in history, his Masters in comparative literature, and his Ph.D. in the history of American religion.

My guest also graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, was Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of the United States to Chief Justice Warren Burger, and later Dean of New York University’s prestigious law school.

Now he is the President of NYU… having indeed led a life devoted both to the world of faith and to the world of the learning.

Now last time John Sexton and I talked about an address of his titled “Dogmatism versus Civil Discourse”…and as you can imagine we didn’t get far enough and I wanted to ask President Sexton to talk about the relationship of his concerns about the fate of dialogue in our society, the relationship of that to our political structure. Dr. Sexton where are we in politics, given this notion of the inadequacy of dialogue in our lives?

SEXTON: Well, talk about the inadequacy of dialogue … when did you stop calling me John and start calling me Dr. Sexton?

HEFFNER: You’re Dr. Sexton and President Sexton and John … you’re a man of all seasons.

SEXTON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And for all seasons.

SEXTON: Well, let me get to your question. I, I think this growth toward what I call dogmatism, whether it’s theological dogmatism, which is actually derived from a kind of religious belief that brings into the civic thinking of people Revealed Truths that, that, that can’t be questioned in civic discourse.

Or whether it’s the more pernicious … call it epistemological dogmatism … you know a kind of frame of mind that, that brings into that same public forum an unwillingness to, to deal with things at a level of nuance or complexity and a need for a quick … “gimme, gimme a quick answer, you know, a binary … is it this or is it that?”, you know.

I think this dogmatism of both kinds, but particularly the latter which is much more pervasive … has a dramatic effect on the political discourse in this country that potentially can be devastating. I mean literally can threaten the, the experiment of, of civil discourse.

There’s a great book by a Princeton professor named Albert Hirschman, he’s now in his 90s and he wrote, he wrote this book, Richard, in 1991. So he did not write this book, you know, after the elections of 2000 or 2004. And the name of the book is called The Rhetoric of Reaction. And in it he takes, if I remember correctly, three case studies. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Equality Revolution and, and he shows how those reacting to the proposed changes fell into a certain set of rhetorical arguments.

Almost as a paradigm in each case. And then interestingly enough the, the Progressives … and he uses, for these purposes, reactionary and progressive as value neutral terms, but those Progressives who were advancing the proposed change fell into mirror image ways of speaking.

And, and he says that especially in a two party democracy, this kind of rhetorical pattern embracing by, by … in a binary dialogue ends up, over time, driving the, the two parties … now remember he’s writing 15 years in advance of this show … drives the two parties to the place where each side is looking at the other and is saying, “How did they ever get to be that way?”

And each side is utterly incapable of, of understanding the basis of the arguments that are being made by the other side. There’s this … this conversation is going past itself.

So he described Red and Blue long before there was, was Red and Blue. I look out and I, I see this kind of dogmatic thinking that I’ve described as infecting our civic discourse to the point where … political leaders are defensive in the way they talk. They don’t want to say the provocative. That means they don’t want to say in some ways the creative.

So, so … policy makers when they’re in conversations with each other, you hear this all the time … from, from leaders in Congress or leaders in the State legislature, from executives in our governmental branches.

If you’re in a conversation now in this binary world of, of, of kind of slogan, you, you don’t want to introduce nuance and complexity and possibly common ground because it can be seen as a sign of weakness, as a conciliation…is, is, is more to be resisted. And, and what ends up happening is if the policy choice is … increasingly are seen as binary then the, the extremes in the Red and the Blue begin to dominate. Then you add to that the kind of intense partisanship, team … I mean look at the voting records of even people who are Moderates in the Red and Blue parties. And see how the moderates tend on key votes to succumb to party loyalty and how votes are along party lines on committees where the policy is made, on the floor of the various legislative bodies.

And of course all of this is exacerbated through the vehicle of gerrymandering. Which, which creates safe districts which means, again, there’s less and less space where a, a candidate is forced to think what Barack Obama would call “purple”. And we don’t vote purple. So, so, we, we vote either Red or Blue. We may feel purple when we go in, but you’ve got to split and so small shifts can have dramatic effects in whether the Red team or the Blue team wins.

And the result of all this is … all these factors come to play … and if, if you’re a political actor in this, this world of dogmatic thinking, then you don’t want to engage in the kind of conversation that you have on your show. You don’t want to engage in iterative thinking.

So in the Presidential debates, 40 Presidential debates in 2004. I watched every one of them. This was the Democratic candidates debate. First debated, on his core issue … John Edwards says, “I grew up in a mill town. My father lost his job. I didn’t vote for NAFTA.”

Now, of course, he wasn’t in Congress. But he didn’t vote for NAFTA. 40th debate, on his core issue, same three points. Now I spend 15 years in the world of competitive debate, at the high school level. Any high school debater would have asked him, “Would you repeal NAFTA?”

No one asked that question in the debates. The Editorial Board of the New York Times asked it. And he said, “Of course not.” That was reported on page sixteen, I think, of the New York Times. “Of course not.”

Where’d your core issue just go? Okay. But we don’t extend conversation in these debates. We each have our slogans. I’m not criticizing … John Edwards is a wonderful, intelligent man. He’s trapped in a structure, where our society just…will not permit for a host of reasons that have a lot to do with, with us … the electorate … will not permit the kind of nuanced complex conversation on which you’ve built your life.

HEFFNER: John, the binary aspect of this is win or lose, isn’t that the problem that we have … we are arranged now or have arranged our lives that we either sell the item or we don’t sell the item. We either win or we lose. We are, as you suggest, Red or Blue.

SEXTON: Well, there’s that aspect to it, but there’s a wonderful USC Professor by the name of Susan Estrich and she, she … she likes to present herself … you know Susan, she’s got that wonderful voice and she has long blonde hair and she, she’s frequently … as she would say, she’s frequently the Left Blonde that they like to put … compared to … and there are any number of … Right Blondes that, you know, they’d love to have on, on these kind of coliseum sho…discourse show. I say coliseum because it’s, it’s like a battle …

HEFFNER: To the death.

SEXTON: … of the gladiators … to the death … and she tells a wonderful story … she told it at NYU to a group of law students and I just … I, I have never been able to forget it. It’s more than 10 years ago she told me. How she gets a call about a Supreme Court decision on which there were four or five decisions, it was a very complex issue, from a producer of one of these coliseum shows and, and, and “Professor Estrich are you up on today’s opinion? Yes. And what do you think of the opinion?” “Well, it’s, it’s a complicated case and a little this and a little that”, and she gives like a 15 minute nuanced answer.

HEFFNER: That doesn’t work.

SEXTON: Yeah, and in the end the producer says, “That’s the most interesting I’ve heard on this, but … are you for it or against it?”

And she gives another complex answer and then, and the producer says, “Professor … yes, but do you think the Court got it right or wrong?”

And when she said, “Well I can’t answer it in those terms.” He said, “Well, we’ll try someone else for the show.”

And, but that … so it’s more then simply that, that a vote is a binary thing. You know, one, one could … one could imagine a world in which, with less than proportional or Parliamentary … I mean those are possibilities out there to discuss.

But in the system in which we live …a world which was not as gerrymandered and where discourse was, was serious … where, where you, you could live in a world of complexity and complex solutions for complex problems.

But we choose to live instead with slogans and scare tactics.

HEFFNER: John, it’s been only two days since the election … the Congressional election of 2006. I don’t know when our viewers are going to see this program, but you and I are sitting here only two days later … we don’t know all the results, but we have a pretty good idea. Do you thing this election is going to have an impact of any kind upon the dilemmas that you are describing?

SEXTON: Well I think it’s … any time you’re interested in a ventilation of issues and you believe in, in dialogic discourse, it’s better to have two parties in power than, than one having a monopoly in power. So that limited extent we, we, we, I think, will be marginally better off.

But, frankly, the recent election, I think, is proof of the problem, not inductive of hope about the kind of solution that I see going, going forth …

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that?

SEXTON: Well, because the discourse that occurred … I mean, put aside some of the …

HEFFNER: The dirty tricks?

SEXTON: … oh, the horrible kind of negative vilification of anyone that, that runs for office these days, to the point where only a person who is really hungry for the power goes in blindly. I mean not to say that there aren’t some thoughtful people going, but they’re going at great personal cost. And, and unjust cost. But put that aside.

The discourse that occurred was, was a very, very kind of simplistic discourse. I don’t think that that was very much different.

HEFFNER: I’m talking about the results …

SEXTON: The results …

HEFFNER: …to the degree that we know them. I’m not talking about the …

SEXTON: I think the results …

HEFFNER: …can’t …

SEXTON: …any results that create a capacity for dialogue are, are to be applauded. And therefore the fact that we now have two parties to the conversation … instead of having a party that is able to dominate the conversation … and create through limiting the agenda in Congress and just keeping alternative proposals off the table … strictures on the conversation. I think we’re in a better position today than we were a week ago.

HEFFNER: Do you think your students think so?

SEXTON: I, I … I think my students probably don’t think about the issue at the level we’re talking about it here. I think, sadly, that they, like many Americans think of it more as “did my team win, or not.” And, and that’s part of the problem I’m trying to identify.

Now I think universities can be part of the answer to this. And, and I think that universities should gather together in what I call a discourse coalition, as an analogy to what Peterson and Paul Tsongas and others did with the Concorde Coalition on budget.

I, I think that … first of all universities know how to do complex conversations … as we talked about last time. We, we … we actually … you know … some of the intrinsic things about universities are that, that our goal is the advancement of ideas, but ideas not tested … you know, in, in the short run … but over the long run.

You know in the short run you might get away with saying the earth is flat. But there came a century when you looked pretty foolish for having said it. And, and, and … you know, universities are, are utterly transparent, fully open models of … where the claim is put out … you know … “this is an advancement of knowledge.”

And, and, you know, you could put that out as a formula on a computer in Washington Square and some mathematician in Bombay can disprove your hypothesis. So it’s all about an iterative testing of ideas. That’s what universities do.

And I, I think what we’ve got to start doing is modeling that into, into society more. So my proposal would be that, that university presidents gather together, actors from across the political spectrum who care about changing our discourse. And that we begin to shame and honor people for the way they engage in discourse in our, our political conversation.

That we begin to create venues for serious conversation. Venues … you know, like, like this. That we begin to put together panels of people who will be committed to a process, of idea testing and iterative deepening idea testing. And at least at the level that my high school debaters could do it.

So, so that you know you bring in … not a talking head panel … you know … that, you know … you try to make it less binary than the Susan Estrich example. Right … this person, that person. You try to bring in, bring in more of a structure. But you bring in not just that … but you put that panel in a process that requires the, the deepening examination by experts over time. It requires time.

It requires the panel not to be two hours. Maybe more written. Maybe more Internet based. But, but … I think … we’ve got an emergency in this country and I think universities are part of the answer. And, and this kind of discourse coalition led by those of us who do nuance and complexity as part of our being … without a political agenda, but with politicians who want to be honored for their commitment to it, is a beginning.

HEFFNER: How can you say, “Without a political agenda”, when the very process that you’re talking about is political in itself.

SEXTON: Let me …

HEFFNER: Not Democratic or Republican …

SEXTON: Well, well, well … political … in fact, I’ll, I’ll … upon your cross-examination … in this iterative conversation I’ll say that the words “without a political agenda” were probably susceptible, at the very least, to the interpretation you’re giving and therefore weren’t well advised.

But let me give you … political is not a bad word. Right? The “polis”. What we’re trying to do is, is, is … is actuate the Athenian idea of the “polis” and how do we do it right in a universal participatory democracy? How do we have really meaningful civil discourse? Okay.

So I’m not going to take the word political as a pejorative. And I … and now that you mentioned it and won’t even say “agenda” is a … because you have a list of items. Okay?

What I meant to say is without an “a priori” commitment to the particular idea that might be the starting point in the Red or the Blue way of looking at things, or the purple or the orange or yellow or all of the other viewpoints. But a commitment to a process of testing.

Look, each of us enters the process with an orthodoxy. But the fact of the matter is that ideas can be tested. Universities proved that.

There is such a thing as a hierarchy of ideas. And it’s possible to display the advantages and disadvantages in a reasoned iterative conversation of different policy choices.

And the only way we’re going to get answers to complex problems is by having that complex conversation. And we’re not having it in political discourse today.

So, what I’m proposing is a process that would force that kind of conversation.

HEFFNER: You say “hierarchy of values, hierarchy of ideas” … we’re suffering from that, aren’t we? Rather than the opposite.

SEXTON: Well, again, you know, all, all, all language has various forms of interpretation. What I meant to convey …

HEFFNER: You have to be very simple in talking to me.

SEXTON: No, no, no, no. The issue … I mean … you, you do what people who are trying to engage in serious conversation and thought do. You multiply the possible meanings and then you try to push clarification as to what the meaning is and then you engage that meaning.

HEFFNER: You’re very kind.

SEXTON: No, no. Well, well … I’ll tell you .. two of the things that have to enter the process I’ve talked about are two things that Americans aren’t very good at.

HEFFNER: What’s that?

SEXTON: Listening. And humility.

HEFFNER: Same thing?

SEXTON: No. Not the same thing, but certainly supportive of each other. Okay? And in, in the advancement of thought … okay … I could, I could feel very, very aggressive about my idea … you know … I can think I’ve just discovered something or I’ve just thought of something no one … or I’ve just noticed something no one else has, has noticed before.

I’ve advanced thinking. Okay. But then when I put the thought out … thinking … you know, in that, that intellectual moment that’s the equivalent of singing in the shower … that it’s as good as I think my singing is when I’m in the shower .. but now I’m out in the kind of …the, the recording studio of the mind here and I put it out and you come back with your critique of it, I have to be willing to listen to that critique and say, “Well now why is he disagreeing with me?”

And I have to put myself in your mind position to try to understand … before I engage with your idea I have to understand it fully. And, and then a different disposition of mind is to be humble about my thought. Not that I’m going to capitulate.

HEFFNER: John, let me ask you something. Honest, just between the two of us …

SEXTON: Oh, yeah, no one else listening …

HEFFNER: … aren’t you being somewhat un-American in this? By that I mean, you’re working outside the American tradition. You’re, you’re asking us to be … if I may … open minded. You’re asking us to come willing to listen. You say we’re not very good at it. And I wonder whether you’re outside of our tradition and whether you can achieve what you want in your coalition of universities … but how do you carry it beyond there?

SEXTON: Boy I’ll tell you … anybody that knows you or us knows how many fighting words there were … you know, for Richard Heffner to use the phrase, “un-American”. And, and then to couple it with this fifties Irish Catholic that he’s dealing with … with the word “you’re outside tradition” … you know … right behind it comes the word “excommunication” …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … so, so … but … you’re on to something …

HEFFNER: You’re wrong.

SEXTON: Look, no, no. If … first of all I know you’re, you’re just trying to …

HEFFNER: I’m baiting you.

SEXTON: Of course you’re baiting me which is…good. But, but … no. Let me say the compulsory sentence … I think what I’m being is extremely American in the sense of the real fundamental values of America.

You are 100% correct that I think we, as a people, are among the most ethnocentric, chauvinistic people in the world. And there’s real danger here, too, that, that … if this dogmatism that I’m thinking of … if this dogmatism continues to infect our civil discourse … it is infecting it at a time when it’s likely to be most toxic.

Why? Because we have just entered what I call “The Century of the Other”. The world has become miniature and, and New York City is just the first example of the world miniaturized. You know, this, this … this wonderful phrase Dan Doctoroff and Jay Kriegel taught to us, of the 202 countries that were at the Athens Olympics, 199 of them are represented in the New York City Public School system by kids that were born in those countries. Born there, not descended from.

So we’re the world in miniature. The first … my phrase for it is … “glocal” city … global and local simultaneously. In a way, Richard, New York City is the first experiment in whether the 21st century is going to be a century in which humankind learns out of … in this world of difference and “the other” to create some kind of overarching community.

And you can put anything you want after the word “other” … other religion, other ethic group, other idea. You could put any of those there … and, you know, the fundamental choice is going to be … do we see that world as being a terrifying world, a jagged world, as David Brooks would call it. A clash of civilizations. Or do, do we see that, that world where “the other” is immediate to me, where you can’t gate yourself off from it anymore.

You know when we grew up you could live in a gated community which was the, the American equivalent of apartheid … where you could living in an intellectually gated world, you know a kind of intellectual apartheid. Impossible in the world of the 21st century. And, and if we continue to be as solipsistic and as ethnocentric, and as chauvinistic … as, as this growing kind of dogmatism in the world of “the other”, we’re setting America up for catastrophe.

So, no, I’m not being un-American. I’m interested, I’m the real Conservative in the conversation. I’m attempting to conserve the fundamental values of the “polis” and really what, what America is most committed to. And I’m saying the universities have to play a key role in that. They have to be embraced by society. They have to take, take cognizance of what’s happening and they have to witness out the society … how to be … how to conduct a conversation that’s nuanced.

HEFFNER: John, you’re wonderful. And I keep thinking of Walt Whitman when I hear you. I keep thinking about that “other” in which he saw it within our nation and you know that we have to see it beyond our, our boundaries.

I was going to save that theme of “other” for the next program and you’re going to have to come back to do one that is strictly about “the other”.

Meanwhile, John Sexton, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

SEXTON: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, for transcripts, 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.