The Nature, Purpose and Value of Public Discourse

by Franciscan University Student Forum

There is a common notion these days, though often only implicit, that to criticize someone else’s ideas is uncharitable and therefore unchristian. We would like to give several reasons why just the opposite is the case.

The purpose of discussion is neither to show off one’s intellectual prowess nor to shoot down one’s opponent. Rather, the primary end of discussion must be to arrive at truth. By each person putting forth his own position and his criticisms of his opponents’, each party in the discussion benefits in several ways, all of which lead to a fuller understanding of the truth.

First, each party is forced to articulate his own position in the strongest possible way in order to be able to explain it and make it as reasonable as possible. This helps us grapple with and master our own thoughts, which may initially be only vague and incomplete. This in turn allows us to see more clearly what in our ideas is true, what isn’t, and, maybe most importantly, what seems true but is as yet not fully developed. All of this is vital for the never-ending process of searching out the truth.

Secondly, confronted with an opposing view, each party is forced to try to understand his opponent’s position, to think beyond his own limited perspective. This is extremely important for anyone who is seriously seeking the truth. We Catholics, especially here at this university, have an unfortunate tendency to see the truth as something set in stone to be attained and then rigidly adhered to. In reality, God alone sees things in their completeness. For finite minds, the fullness of truth will never be attained on earth, though we should never stop striving after it. Hearing another person’s arguments presses us to come to terms with alternative positions which enable us to see the issue from new angles. This often helps us to realize aspects of the truth that we hadn’t seen before, or hadn’t taken seriously enough. We experience the incompleteness of our own understanding; even our best ideas are missing something, which, in our love for truth we cannot bear to be without. This keeps us ever striving after the fullness of truth. It prevents us from resting content with what we have, and from succumbing to intellectual laziness, or worse, indifference.

In trying to articulate our ideas, in the face of opposing ones, we gain in other ways as well. First, we can deepen, sharpen, and perfect our own position. We might realize certain nuances and interrelationships which we had not previously thought through. Or we might recognize some inadequacies, exaggerations, or faulty logic in our argument that we had been blind to until someone reacted to it. Secondly, we will have to recognize the truth that our opponent’s position contains, and we can then incorporate it into our own, allowing us a more complete comprehension of the truth. Thirdly, we will get a better idea of the errors that may be underlying his view. This has a triple benefit: first, when the errors themselves are clear, a better defense of the truth is possible; secondly, the truth itself is more clear because it’s now more clearly opposed to error (and the human mind knows in part through opposites); thirdly, one’s understanding of the truth is deepened because in seeing where and why someone else went wrong one is better able to appreciate the intricacies of the right path and its interrelationships with other paths. Finally, we will be forced to reevaluate and re-articulate our own position, arriving at a clearer and more accurate conception and expression of the truth.

It is precisely for many of these reasons that Socrates and Plato used dialogue as the main method in their search for truth. And for the same reasons the scholastics followed suit, using the disputatio as their method of teaching and writing. Though the question-objections-solution-replies format of the Summa Theologica, for example, can seem quite dry to us today, it was essential for medieval thinking. In order to most fully understand and defend your own position, you had to enter into your opponent’s, articulate his arguments as strongly as you could, and then address them.

Not only is disputation vital for the truth, but it is vital for education as well. Every one of the above points about the importance of discussion for seeking the truth has corresponding pedagogical implications. Vigorous discussion stimulates and develops the mind in an important way which is not easily achieved otherwise. One learns to think quickly, concisely and logically. One learns to think with others, to work with and build on their thoughts, and to analyze and synthesize ideas. One even develops certain moral virtues such as patience, justice and charity. The importance of discussion for education and truth should make it quite obvious how vitally important public and private discussion, even heated debate, is for a university, if it is to really thrive.

Not only is debate central to a university, but it is central to a democracy as well. No one who takes democracy seriously can think that the basic idea is simply that everyone vote as he thinks best. Fundamental to any properly functioning democracy is an energetic public discourse, one which informs people, but more importantly allows for the “free exchange of ideas.” By having an open and lively public forum for discussion, tough issues are able to be worked out and intelligent and informed decisions can then be made.

We are now finally in a position to address the issue of charity. It should be clear by this point that debate, even intense and passionate debate about delicate issues, is not intrinsically uncharitable. It should be clear, in fact, that debate is actually very much in accord with charity, for it springs from a love for the truth and a love for one’s opponent, whom one sees to be lacking some part of the truth. One doesn’t look down on one’s opponent as ignorant or muddleheaded, because this is usually not the case, and even if it were, there is still much to be learned from such an opponent, as was pointed out above. Rather, each maintains his own position while being respectful of his opponent, and realizing that he has something to learn from him, however slight.

There is nothing incompatible between respect of one’s opponent and rigorous, vehement criticism of his position. Though it can be difficult at times not to take criticism of one’s ideas personally, it is certainly not the case that criticism of someone’s ideas equals a personal attack. And even if it were criticism of the person, it would not necessarily be uncharitable. What is in fact really uncharitable is to leave one’s brother alone when one thinks he’s in error. One might argue that constructive criticism is actually a Christian duty. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed by the contemporary misunderstanding of kindness and love, a “love” which would allow the other to burn in hell if only to avoid hurting his feelings. Contemporary “toleration” which tries to be all things to all people is one thing that we must not tolerate. We must have the courage and the love to take a position and defend it; to criticize and be criticized; to stand up for what truth we possess while realizing that we are finite and limited and so have much to learn.

These are only a few of the most basic reasons why discussion and even heated debate are ultimately at the service of truth and love. They benefit not only the individuals directly involved, but the whole community, and even all humanity. Of course, when one’s dealing with fallen human beings a debate has the potential to get out of hand, especially with sensitive and emotionally charged issues, and uncharitable things may sometimes be said and done. We must not, however, let abuses serve as the standard by which we judge the whole. They should, however, serve to help us establish practical measures to avoid further abuses as much as possible. Hence the Concourse and the Forum. Both are meant to serve as media for the discussion of ideas and current issues while helping to keep things civil and charitable. So, write for the Concourse! And join the Forum! Take a stand and participate in the unending pursuit of truth!

This article was a joint effort by members of The Franciscan University Student Forum, which was established to foster a more vital intellectual life at FUS, in part by acting as a forum for serious and thoughtful discourse among the students. The Concourse is published in association with the Forum.