The influential cultural theorist and critic Stuart Hall used to say that it is dangerous when politics “lets you off the hook” of doing the hard work. I have spent my career devoted to the idea that progressive politics requires intellectuals to tell the best (most “accurate,” complex, and empowering) stories that our research and theories allow.
The present attacks represent a dangerous tendency in which political certainty legitimates — even demands — that leftist academics abandon their commitment to the rigorous investigation of what’s going on. They deny that ideas are living things that get reshaped and rethought over time, through intelligent conversation and argument.
The current moment argues for a space to address the commonly noted problem of the erosion of public discourse, discussion, argument, and debate. That is the question that drives this new program: what can we do pedagogically to foster the capacities for real engagement? The faculty in this program will develop and teach the capacities to engage in serious argument, to embrace the full range of evidence and ways of thinking, and to question one’s own taken for granted assumptions and certainties.
The program will support classes and events embodying the civic virtues of agonostic conversations that: perform, simultaneously, the joy, seriousness and difficulty of real intellectual engagement across differences; that recognize that not all passionate disagreements can be reduced to the same simple war between two sides, driven only by the desire for victory. I have always thought that this was a good working definition of education and a crucial condition for the possibility of democratic politics.
Diverse voices will have to be part of the conversations addressing a wide range of controversies — and some of that diversity, but only some of it — is represented on the advisory board (which includes a number of leading conservative academics, a disparate group of UNC faculty, and a number of prominent progressive intellectuals like Cornel West and Jacqueline Rivers). It will also mean that we, as intellectuals, will reach beyond the campus, to many public bodies, including the BOG and the BOT. Public participation in building capacities for discourse is a vital civic element of the program.
It is time to stop attacking each other, to stop assuming that we know what’s going on and that confirming our politics is more important than serious and honest investigation and cooperation. I hope that many faculty members, including the full range of progressive faculty, will join the project and support its efforts, and that future disagreements can be enacted more productively.
Faculty Advisory Board member for the Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse
Morris Davis Distinguished Professor of Communication and Cultural Studies
Adjunct Distinguished Professor of American Studies