For the first time in my decade of teaching at the University of Chicago, I have encountered resistance to a proposed university event on account of content. I was told I should check with higher ups. I was told that this is not the right time to have this conversation, because tensions are high. “The strike is the conversation.” What if I am perceived as discouraging union activity? What if that sours my relations with graduate students? What if it tarnishes the name of my event series?
I am lucky enough to work in one of the most intellectually open places the world has ever known. The pressures are not strong enough to stop me from holding my event. But they are there. The dark secret of un-Socratic civility is that it cannot avoid holding force in reserve. The force may be physical; it may involve damaging rhetoric; it may involve leveraging social pressures to exclude an undesirable viewpoint. One way or another, we stop listening.
Un-Socratic civility is sunshine and smiles until it isn’t. It threatens to plunge us into darkness as soon as we decide “this time, it actually matters.” For all its relentless, aggressive intrusiveness, Socratic civility does have the virtue of refusing to allow our violent impulses extraconversational expression.
Socrates wouldn’t respect the point of view of the protesters outside his window. He would want to know who is right and who is wrong, and he wouldn’t stop talking to them until the difference between points of view was obliterated. Persuade or be persuaded.