No Jousting, Just Dialogue and Discernment

Professor Deb Niemerir at podium during roundtable.
Professor Deb Niemeier moderates the Feb. 22 roundtable that opened the Dialogue and Discernment series. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

‘Science In a Post-Truth Era’

Interim Chancellor Hexter gave the following remarks Feb. 22 in introducing the university’s new discussion series Dialogue and Discernment:

Thank you all for being here. This is the inaugural event of a new campus discussion series entitled Dialogue and Discernment. The series has been designed to offer opportunities for our community to come together to discuss the value and practice of informed and rational dialogue in the critical evaluation of ideas, especially when we address controversial issues.

Ralph J. Hexter mugshot

The title Dialogue and Discernment has its origin in two talks I delivered earlier this academic year: first, my Fall Convocation address on the topic “Inspiring Dialogue,” and my Fall Commencement address on the topic “Discernment.”

I’m confident that few will be puzzled by the first term of the series title, either what it refers to or why it is there. Today, we hear frequent calls for both campus communities and larger society to bolster the ability and willingness to engage in true dialogue. I refer to dialogue here in the ideal sense, as an informed and rational exchange of ideas that will enable individuals of differing views to collaboratively approach nearer to the truth. In order for the collaboration to work, all participants must adopt a posture of humility and openness, mindful that even our most cherished beliefs might be mistaken, and receptive to any new information or superior reasoning that might make us see things differently.

Dialogue: Shared and improved understanding

The ultimate goal of this ideal dialogue is a noble one, to promote the common good through shared and improved understanding. By this standard, the sort of dialogue that we’ve all too often seen practiced today is largely a false or debased one. At its worst this inferior type of dialogue is not a process of discovery by which we can collaboratively approach a truth that is as yet insufficiently defined, but rather an opportunity for us to assert pre-existing positions as unassailable truths. This practice is collaborative only in the sense that two jousting knights, heavily armored and galloping toward each other with lances drawn, can be called collaborative. And, as in a joust, one side aims to triumph over the other by employing one or more forms of brutality, for example, the demonization or shouting down of others who think differently, or even outright violence or destruction of property. What are not employed nearly enough are the academic tools of respect, engagement, in-depth knowledge and understanding, and rational argumentation.

And I think there’s an argument to be made that in some ways our contemporary conversational practices are more brutal than this centuries-old form of chivalric entertainment at least when we address important issues upon which we passionately disagree.

And I think there’s an argument to be made that in some ways our contemporary conversational practices are more brutal than this centuries-old form of chivalric entertainment at least when we address important issues upon which we passionately disagree. Often, in those cases, victory seems to require the utter silencing, dishonoring and dehumanization of our opponents. While there are those who insist upon the justification, value and even necessity of what I am calling brutal discourse to address controversial issues, I believe that the burden of proof for that disturbing position has not been met. Whatever tactful victories may be won by it, this practice seems strategically indefensible for the following reason: Brutality only serves to perpetuate disagreement, division, lack of understanding and more brutality. This is no path towards progress.

Those of us who are part of the academic community, I believe, have a special opportunity as well as a special responsibility to do better. We are not only uniquely equipped to engage in informed and rational dialogue, but also the primary agents entrusted with ensuring that this foundational activity of the academy continues and flourishes for the benefit of all society.

This exploration of what is at stake in the idea of dialogue speaks to my expectation that its appearance in our series title will not puzzle anyone.

Discernment: A honed, critical faculty

But why do I also add discernment? In my opinion, we must be skilled at employing discernment, which I define as a honed, critical faculty encompassing knowledge recent and more if we are to proceed from dialogue to deeper understanding in the social good. As listeners, we must be able to thoroughly understand and test an idea, even if it is advocated with the best intentions and practices, even if it is supported by a great amount of information and rational argumentation. We can begin by precisely guaging the weight and solidity of the facts and reasoning offered, the reliability of the sources, and the coherence, inclusiveness and implications of the position being brought forward.

I will not attempt to go beyond this brief and incomplete outline of what goes into the practice of discernment. Suffice it to say that discernment potentially draws upon all of our intellectual, emotional and ethical resources. To be sure, I’ve left concepts somewhat mysterious, and so I will say as we often do about skills that are highly complex, that it is as much an art as a science. The good news is that we in the academic community are especially well equipped to practice this hybrid skill and what may be just as important, to continue getting better at practicing it the more we apply ourselves to the task. This new discussion series is one where we can advance our capacity for both dialogue and discernment.

The battlefield is a large one

Let me end by returning our focus to our event today. We have the privilege of hearing a roundtable discussion among four distinguished UC Davis scientists on the topic of “Science In a Post-Truth Era.”

The roundtable and Q&A to follow will be moderated by Professor Deb Niemeier of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, and the School of Education.

Today’s roundtable has the virtue of addressing a topic that may not immediately spring to our minds when we think about dialogue and discernment. That topic is the practice and use of science in an era when both are under threat. But as today’s event will demonstrate, the field upon which the battle for dialogue and discernment must be fought is a large one.

Read Dateline UC Davis coverage of the “Science In a Post-Truth Era” roundtable.

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.

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Ralph J. Hexter

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