The most respected form of dialogue in American culture, formulated within the Western academic community and loosely adopted by modern liberalism, is centered on the ideas of reasonable discourse and accommodation. By reasonable discourse, I refer to the idealistic value of placing facts over beliefs, reason over passion, and objectivity over subjectivity. By accommodation, I refer to the more pragmatic values that develop from working within a system that places reasonable discourse as its central ideal, which involve the sacrifice of numerous potential alternative avenues of discourse in order to accommodate the most “pure” form of reasonable discourse obtainable. To accommodate ourselves towards reasonable discourse, we must display skepticism towards any idea that cannot be thoroughly argued or proven, distaste towards overly emotional rhetoric, and a detachment from “profane” culture in favor of a more refined, intellectual worldview.
This structure has proven to be quite advantageous for the development of intellectual thought in American society as a whole, both inside and outside the Academy. Reasonable discourse allows ideas that do indeed possess elements of universality to rise to the top of the discussion, facilitating communication between people from numerous fields, disciplines, and walks of life. Such clear and consistent communication has consequently allowed for an almost exponential explosion in knowledge and advancements – most at the scientific level, but it can certainly be argued that much has been gained at a social level as well. Indeed, in a society where efficiency is one of the highest values at multiple levels, reasonable discourse has more than proven its worth.
Yet the shortcomings of reasonable discourse, particularly those displayed by accommodation, are all too readily either ignored or dismissed as inevitable. Healthy skepticism all too easily becomes a cynical set of criterion that excludes important ideas on the basis that they are intellectually “unsound” or “immature;” people who allow their passion to guide their work are treated as eccentric at best, biased partisans with an axe to grind at worst; academics and intellectuals can rapidly fade from relevancy in a societal dialogue that is more and more rapidly outpacing them. Ultimately, the primary limitation of reasonable discourse is the manner in which its pragmatic application comes into conflict with its idealistic goal: the compromises made in establishing a common ground for participants to work with serve to exclude vast numbers of valuable insights, as the speakers struggle with the basic rhetorical goals of being understood, convincing others to pay attention to them, and maintaining their reputation amongst their colleagues.
There are numerous ways to break the rules – both written and unspoken – of reasonable discourse, yet few such methods are so immediately repulsive, yet potentially valuable, as antagonistic speech. By antagonistic speech, I am referring to overtly hostile polemics that, as often as not, seems to speak more to those who agree with the speaker than those the speech is supposedly directed at. It is this “preaching to the choir” aspect in particular that makes antagonistic speech so apparently antithetical to reasonable discourse, as there does not seem to be any element of discourse.
A prime example is ultra-conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s 2003 bestseller Treason, a diatribe of undisguised rage directed at American liberals that is quite obviously not meant to be read by liberals, but rather those conservatives who already feel basically the same as Coulter. Treason can be positively breathtaking in its systematic breaking of the rules of reasonable dialogue: partially researched and manipulated facts are buried within snide commentary and ad hominem attacks; terms such as communist, traitor, terrorist, and liberal are thrown as a wide net over a myriad of figures and philosophies, all without bothering to define what Coulter means by these terms; and perhaps worst of all, there seems to be no clear thesis, no identifiable structure to her arguments, or any of the other basic requirements any college student must meet in a first year composition course.
Yet when matters of identity and antipathy are taken seriously, our knee-jerk dismissal of antagonistic speech becomes less appropriate. Antagonistic speech may very well be outside the bounds of reasonable discourse, yet its very outsider status may be its greatest value in the search for a more holistic form of discourse. If we accept that reasonable discourse has limitations that have had a serious impact at both an academic and scientific level, limitations that ultimately interfere with the very objectives of reasonable discourse itself, then a radical form of outsider criticism is necessary.
Taken in these regards, the most vitriolic and hateful criticism can suddenly become the most valuable, as it is the most consistently suspicious of the basic assumptions within the system. The rage of the antagonistic speaker helps to create a feeling of alienation that often allows him or her the distance to see a remarkably clear (though obviously biased) view of how the idea or system being criticized has been constructed in the first place.
Even in the event where the rage of the speaker overcomes any accurate vision of the subject being criticized, the view being offered by the antagonistic speaker is still valuable in that it often shows how many others might conceivably misunderstand the ideas or intentions of those being criticized. Thus, Ann Coulter could prove to be a supremely valuable commentator for liberals and other leftists who seek to make their views understood and appreciated by a broad audience: no matter how unsavory and unpalatable many may find her methods, there is no denying that Coulter speaks to a broad segment of the population that is working from the same assumptions about liberals that she is. As an exercise, consider the closing paragraph of Treason:
Americans cannot comprehend how their fellow countrymen could not love their country. But the left’s anti-Americanism is intrinsic to their entire worldview. Liberals promote the rights of Islamic fanatics for the same reason they promote the rights of adulterers, pornographers, abortionists, criminals, and Communists. They instinctively root for anarchy and against civilization. The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason. (Treason p. 292)
From examining this paragraph alone, we can already deduce how Coulter and many others like her have come to understand liberalism. Just to take the most basic example, “liberal” for Coulter seems to mean any who belong to the political left, even if they belong to fundamentally opposed ideologies such as communism and anarchism, to say nothing of the highly government-oriented yet capitalist-friendly mainstream Democrats. This misunderstanding of the political left may be deliberate on Coulter’s part, but it reflects a sincere belief on the part of many Americans for whom contact with the political left has consisted of a few encounters with radical activists, many of whom have neither the inclination nor the patience to explain the reasons for their base assumptions to an outsider. Only by engaging authors like Coulter with serious reflection can such basic misunderstandings have any hope of being rectified.
Such openness to otherwise distasteful rhetoric becomes important not only at a societal level, but at an academic one as well. The question of the relevancy of academic study in relation to mainstream society is always a touchy one, but a necessary one, and it is difficult to see how the Academy can remain relevant if it dismisses vast amounts of thought and discourse taking place within society simply because it does not meet its own exacting criteria for reasonable discourse. While it may be more intellectually fulfilling for a theology student to read the reasonable and thoughtful discourse Paul Tillich than the atrociously and antagonistically written Left Behind series, which of the two offers a better insight into the spiritual views of a larger portion of the population? Those who angrily criticize the Academy for its “Ivory Tower” mentality may display a distasteful form of anti-intellectualism, yet they offer a valuable criticism: is the purpose of academia to take part in society, or serve its own self-perpetuating ends? From an idealistic standpoint, such a question must be taken seriously, as it is a basic goal and responsibility within the academic community to understand why we do what we do. From a pragmatic standpoint, the question becomes even more important, for the longer it take to answer it, the more willing society may become to cut its already diminishing budgets in favor of more receptive programs.
General Disclaimer: Yeah, I know the style is WAY overdone, pompous, pseudointellectual smart-speak...and yes, there's a reason it's that way.