14 May 2009

Why I talk to people who disagree with me

I like my brother. D-bro Don has an interesting mind. He is intelligent--as everyone in my family seems to be. And like the rest of us, he has strong opinions on things. My brother and I disagree on virtually every aspect of politics and social programs, but amazingly enough, we have a lot of common ground around gun issues. He is a die-hard Republican. I'm an aging and increasingly centrist Democrat. He revels in poking fun at "Obamalama". Finds it almost as amusing as I did poking fun at our former mental lightweight of a President.

On many issues, my brother can speak with some authority. He reads his local newspaper daily. He seems to have a handle on the national news. He is something of a student of the stock market. And he is extremely well versed on legislation concerning gun laws. Now neither of us is a trained economist or political scientist, so I figure that we both have a right to our respective opinions on the economy, wars, fossil fuel, and approaches to social programs. But my brother is a project manager for a large, urban contractor. He has worked on a variety of public projects, including the building and expansion of schools, hospitals, and public housing. In his job, he has come face-to-face with bureaucracy, Chicago-style. It didn't improve his concept of Chicago politics. He cares about his community. He reads the newspaper and scours the news for stories that affect his community. I suppose in his school district, the administrators are well paid. In fact, he told me that the superintendant of the Joliet public schools earns a half million dollars a year. This fact, which he supported by actually scanning and emailing me the newspaper article describing it, has sent him into a tizzy.

A half million dollars for a public school administrator is about $450,000 a year too much in my brother's view. D-bro has unusual ideas about academia, mostly formed from what others have told him and an ardent distrust of tenure. He can't believe that teachers are given an "lifetime prohibition on firing". Claims that tenure makes teachers lazy. Claims that it breeds bad teaching. I will admit that he would have no trouble finding ample support for his claims. However, in part of his rant this time, he turned to me and said in exasperation, "Can YOU explain why the hell they even give teachers tenure? What possible purpose can that serve."

To which I replied, "I sure can" and I proceeded to explain how tenure assured that professors (and I suppose also public school teachers) could teach controversial subjects without fear of being replaced by disagreeing administrators. I explained how researchers HAD to probe the cutting edge of areas like medicine, biology, astronomy, and physics, and how they often had to push up against borders that some might feel violate their moral or ethical standards. I explained why it is important for the advancement of knowledge that professors be granted autonomy in their work, and that public funds not be hamstrung by the vagaries of the political moment.

He did not concede the point, but I could tell he listened.

We talked about the future of education. I told him stories of the older faculty and their ideas about academia and how I believe they are the last of an old school mentality that professors are the keepers of knoweldge. We discussed my ideas that a college education is becoming just another commodity, and that the ivory towers are going to become an increasingly competitive marketplace where second-tier universities were going to be competing with student-focused community colleges, which have, in some states, begun offering bachelor's degrees. He listened. I could see him absorbing it all. In that mind of his, he is arranging all this information into an evolving opinion and outlook about education. I found that interesting. Interesting as hell. He listens.

The same way he listened after his rant the last time I visited. He was talking to me about the Endangered Species Act--specifically, the reintroduction of grey wolves into the western US. Understand that my brother is a lifetime member of the NRA, a hunter, and a subscriber to a variety of magazines that detail the issues from an "other than scientific perspective". My last visit, I remember quite clearly my brother saying, 'There is a reason they removed wolves from that environment in the first place."

I let that moment sink in for a minute. I wondered whether my brother really believed that wolves had no rightful place in the wild places of the United States. I wondered whether my brother had actually considered that he was, by all appearances, advocating for the extermination of an entire species from the face of the Earth. In a turn of events that shocked me more than anyone, I responded very softly. I shook my head and admitted it was a difficult issue. I expressed my empathy for ranchers who with a razor-thin profit margin were losing stock to wolves. I surmised that it didn't help that wolves were "smart" predators who worked in packs and seemed to be effective, efficient and deadly hunters. It is hard to believe that predators need help. They work with such precision to cull livestock herds. Yet, I explained that scientists have to consider the health of the ecosystem, the rights of the animals to space and land and respect for a natural history that took millenia to evolve. I explained that it didn't seem prudent to think of this strictly from an economic perspective. It didn't seem right to think of this strictly as an issue of property rights. It doesn't seem right to purposefully exterminate an entire species. I told him the truth. I told him that I didn't know what the best course of action was. Was it to compensate ranchers for their losses? Was it to raise prices of meat so that the consumer paid the price for the lost stock? Was it to raise prices on grazing land to fair-market value and then set up a compensation fund for stock losses? But there was one thing I did make clear. I told him I was fairly certain that the wrong thing to do was to shoot wolves into extinction. I just shook my head and told him, "Presumably humans are the smartest animals on the planet. Does that give us the right to make such a drastic and permanent decision? I'm not sure who among us has greater rights than the rights of an animal to exist. Who gets to make that decision for us? What if, after exterminating wolves, we figure out a viable solution to the problem?" In the end, I asked more questions than I answered, but still, he listened. And listening is one great habit of an open mind.

It is sometimes quite useful to talk to people who disagree with you.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed. I miss talking to intelligent people who disagree with me. I think engineering was more ripe for this than biology, though perhaps also being in academia does it. It does seem as my education has gotten more rarefied, the diversity of opinions I'm around has decreased. Seems this shouldn't necessarily have to be so. And as much as intellectual debate is "valued" in the academy, I see so little of it directly occurring in the halls of the universities where I've walked. When it does occur, it seems mainly to be between teacher and student, with the best students either a) raising questions about the assumptions or conclusions of an area that more experienced faculty & grad students hadn't thought about out of genuine interest and mental nimbleness, or b) raising quesitons about the assumptions or conclusions of an area in order to justify continuing to think what they thought otherwise, or in some other way get out of more rigorous mental work for an essay or test.

    Although (b) is quite annoying, it seems worthwhile to have the challenge, even if it is from such a self-serving shitty place, in contrast to the bubble I feel like I'm increasingly experiencing within my day-to-day academic life (with some notable exceptions here and there; had a great conversation with a biotechnologist at a recent conference).