Got a posse together last night to go hear Leah Lebresco talk on Openness to Truth at St. Dominic’s in the city, one of the most beautiful churches on the West Coast. (It might be the most beautiful – I’m not coming up with a more beautiful one off the top of my head.) As in:
It has a similar vibe to St. Patrick’s in New York, although it is a smaller church. What was really cool: we showed up an hour early, and I took the kids in to look around. In an atmosphere of the lovely scent of incense that forever hangs in the air and the otherworldly light from the stained glass, there was a large group saying a Rosary in the nave, and Adoration being held in the Lady Chapel to the right. Really beautiful in so many ways.
The talk was moved from the church hall into the nave, as way too many people showed up for the hall. Ms. Lebresco is a very animated speaker. Unfortunately, the building has the sort of live acoustics one would expect – perfect for chant and polyphony, not so good for a fast-talking Long Island girl. But still an excellent talk. She focused more on how to argue in general than anything apologetic – which was good. A major theme was to love your interlocutor (and she’s just the kind of person to use that word without sounding snobby) and to find out what they love – keep the argument imbued with love, and truth has a chance.
In my mind, I was comparing this with the 4 years of ongoing argument that is the St. John’s Great Books program. At St. John’s, just about the first thing you learn is ‘no hard feelings’ – the most common thing in the world there is to go at it hammer and tongs in class, and keep it going after class over coffee. Sometimes, sure, feathers get ruffled, but the attitude was, basically: You want the Truth? Man up. (That’s just an expression – my wife, along with the many women Johnnies, can throw it down as well as any guy. In fact, you’d best be ready to rumble if you want to take on Anne-Martine. That’s why I had to marry her.)
To this day, from this experience, I have the advantage of knowing how to get to the point and start beating on it, and the disadvantage of offending just about everybody who isn’t a Johnny within seconds of starting an argument – people want their positions treated like delicate little flowers, and take it totally personally if you stomp on ’em. Imagine.
What fun is that? More important, what good is that?
But Leah, who can no doubt hold her own in just about any argument, advises Love. Hmmm. I suppose I’d counter that going at it for blood IS love, a brotherly love – the same way my brothers and I beat the crap out of each other playing basketball, and wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the most fun way to play the game.
However, I’ll have to admit: very few people argue with me any more. Do I scare them off? Perhaps the problem is *me*? That just seems so unlikely. I guess a little introspection is in order.
At the end during questions, the Caboose, age 10, asked: what do you do when the other person won’t argue fair? This was a real, heartfelt question, as, at home, David hears any number of arguments being made by family and friends – so, he gets how it works in theory – while at school, he runs into all these kids that not only don’t have any example of how an argument is reasonably conducted, but have in its place the example of arguments being just tools in a power struggle – kids of divorce, for example. The school itself, over time, at least partially mitigates this situation through the many meetings and especially through the Judicial Committee. After a few years, a lot of the kids can argue like lawyers. But there are always those who can’t or won’t get it – they understand argument to be a way to score points or dominate someone on a visceral, emotional level – that’s all they ever saw it used for at home. The idea that argument might be a friendly way to pursue truth is as incomprehensible to them as color to a blind man.
Leah graciously answered him, and then, when we went up to meet her afterwards, shook his hand and told him it was a good question. A very nice young woman.