My Day One Essay

For the first day of class this term, I did not speak to my students.  I simply presented them with a prompt and had them use the time to write a response to this quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Of course, to be fair, and to make it easier to remain silent, I did the writing myself.  (in the first class, and in another class that was a different course; I wrote poems during the other sections, rather than rewrite the same piece multiple times.)  What follows is my response to my prompt, as transcribed from the legal pad I wrote it down on:

There are several reasons I offered you this quotation to begin our class.  I can discuss some of these with you later.  For just two examples, this passage sets up a conversation I like to have in Rhetoric classes about the meaning of words such as “fact” and “assertion” and “argument” by using “opinion” in a controversial manner.  For another, really technical-sounding, reason, I like the way Chesterton’s point here coincides with a Gadamerian defence of prejudice.  Most simply, though, this bumptious-sounding passage brings us rapidly to the heart of the subject we are here to study–the relationship between reasoning in public and being well-informed on matters that should concern us all.

By “indifference” Chesterton does not mean having no feelings–no one could be “terrible” in “frenzy” without emotions.  What he means is a bit more subtle than that.  Consider two possible responses to seeing an upsetting event on television.  One person talks to all his friends about how gross or scary it was, or maybe joins a bunch of friends to stand outside where there’s a protest.  There are some emotions on display–but has he really done anything that commits him to further action and makes him fit to act and advocate wisely and well?  I suggest he has not.

By comparison, consider his friend who has a habit of being well informed and well prepared.  She wants to know whether the reactions she hears are realistic and proportionate.  She is not content to be merely “open-minded” or “skeptical,” so she actively studies available learning from a variety of disciplines and traditions.  When she ends up talking to others about this problem, she already has some idea what she thinks, and has reasons for her view–she knows what her “initial judgment,” or “prejudice,” is.  As a result, her friends have to offer her better reasons than the ones she’s already found, if they want to move her to a new, possibly better, position.

This movement, from preparation to “exigence” (the moment when others might disagree with you) to a more decided and defined understanding, is what we call “reasoning.”  We do not merely shout what we think at any moment at each other, but prepare our thoughts so that we can give reasons to our friends–and even our rivals, opponents, or enemies.

When we prepare by studying and thinking carefully, and reason with others, most people will feel an obligation to give their own reasons, or at least to criticize our reasons.  Responding to reasons with reasons, and weighing those reasons for fitness and relative importance, is what “reasonable” people do, and “responsible” people expect this to be usual in their conversations.  People who abuse this process with lies or manipulations are justly called “unreasonable” and “irresponsible,” and we can safely refuse to consider their views until we hear reasonable and responsible expressions of similar views.

When people are “indifferent” to matters that they ought to study and fail to prepare for reasonable and responsible discourse, they are overwhelmingly likely to be swept along with crowds of others who do not care enough to learn, but who can be counted on to do what this celebrity or that party leader tells them, especially if they can be made frightened or angry enough.  “Indifferent” people can be easily manipulated by a charming or famous or surprising person, especially if that person is well-liked by the news and entertainment media.  From street protests to the DMV, from tech support to a mass rally for a radical politician, most of the bad results you see are easily attributable to “indifference” in this sense.  It is through our failure to take responsibility to learn and speak and act reasonably that we become slaves.

In the end, it is slavery that Chesterton warns us against–slavery to those in power, maybe, but definitely slavery to our own ignorance and passions, as those are echoed and amplified by millions of others, and manipulated by those who are eager to sell us things.  For in believing that the world exists to keep our desires met, that being consumers can make us happy and hard thinking will make us sad, we become enslaved–and we are likely also to become bigots.