Dialogue and Friendship
In my introduction to The Rhetorical Turn I provided further elaboration on what a post-modern reconstructive rhetoric of inquiry could possibly mean. Such a rhetoric, I argued, need not be unreasonable or unempirical. However capable it may be of conceiving arguments for opposing claims, it need not leave us in a state of indecision. Drawing on James Boyd White's jurisprudential rhetoric of inquiry (1984) and on Habermasian (1979) conceptions of ideal intellectual exchange, I proposed an emancipatory, dialogic rhetoric, one that looked to conversations among critical but at the same time supportive communicants for touchstones of that rhetoric. White's thesis underscores the transformative potential of a dialogic rhetoric--built paradoxically on the speaker or writer's capacity to operate within the limits of his or her language and culture. "[O]ur subject is rhetoric," says White (1984:xi), "if by that is meant the study of the ways in which character and community...are defined and made real in performances of language." Of the process of law, which White proposes as a model for the human sciences, he argues that it is ideally open to all manner of changes, including changes in the meanings ascribed to its texts, the character and identity of its participants, its language and language practices, and the community and culture out of which it is constituted.
Habermas, like White, but unlike other conversational normativists such as Gadamer (1975), emphasizes the need for a critical component in conversation, and he underscores as well the need to transform material conditions that block or distort communication. Here, as regards the adjudication of ethical questions, I have serious reservations about White's jurisprudential model. The jurisprudential model correctly celebrates the importance of narrative in ordering coherently the relevant components of a case. However, White too quickly dismisses the potential for blockage and distortion stemming from the contentious, impersonal, institutionally regulated character of legal discourse. A preferable model is one that would permit greater freedom of expression, in a more supportive climate, inviting disputants to co-create the relevant narrative. Here, I maintain, the friendship circle may prove to be a more promising arena for the gathering of touchstones than the legal tribunal.
A friendship circle is a voluntary assemblage of persons bonded together by the pursuit of "goods" such as mutuality, the pleasures and rewards of good conversation, and the like, that, as MacIntyre (1981:148) puts it, "are the goods of both and therefore exclusively of neither." So ubiquitous is the friendship circle that we do not ordinarily think of it as an object of theoretical interest. But consider that friendship circles are not only voluntary assemblages; they are also, in principle at least, democratic communities. In a sense they are our most basic communities, the communities within which we learn most directly who we are as moral selves and what it means to be in community (Deetz, ). As James Boyd White (1984:164) notes, novelists and dramatists interested in larger social and political worlds often focus in their writings on friendship relations, as Jane Austen did in Emma. Of Emma, White maintains that the text engages its reader in a kind of conversation, like those between Emma and [her friend] Mr. Knightly, in which at every clarification one feels recognized and rewarded with pleasure and knowledge....As we learn to read this text more completely and to respond to it more fully, we become better readers, not only of this text, but of our world, and better speakers and actors too; in this sense it can be said that the ultimate object of this text is to to teach us to become better friends.
Compare now the friendship circle with the legal tribunal. Whereas the legal tribunal is highly constrained by institutionally imposed rules, the friendship circle has considerable freedom to make its own rules. Thus, for example, a judge may be required by law to impose a mandatory sentence for those found guilty of a given criminal offense. Not only are friends not obligated to impose mandatory punishments of any kind, they need not even pass judgment on guilt or innocence, preferring to examine an ethical dispute from a problem-solving perspective. They also enjoy greater freedom to improvise procedures for conducting the inquiry, allowing, for example, for disputants to argue point by point over the construction of the narrative, rather than hearing one party's entire version of what happened, and then hearing from the other.
Friendship circles are also more personal. Whereas the courtroom drama is directed and largely enacted by the judge and the rival attorneys, in the friendship circle everyone is free to speak and the disputants typically represent themselves. In doing so, they provide their hearers a greater opportunity to assess the credibility of their accounts. By the same token, they also enjoy greater freedom to question the legitimacy of the hearing as well as the fairness of those sitting in judgment.
A third difference concerns defensiveness. Courtroom proceedings are by nature contentious and adversarial; hence we expect opponents to be defensive. The airing of disputes in the friendship circle is apt to evoke defensiveness as well. Particularly as friends engage sensitive moral issues that arise in their midsts, the very survival of the friendship circle may be placed in jeoprady. Oftentimes the disputants compound their differences in these situations by becoming sullen and withdrawn, or by resorting to such power tactics as threats and intimidation--all the while insisting that the other adhere to moral standards that they exempt from themselves (Deutsch, 1969). One advantage, however, of the friendship circle, is that defensiveness has a better chance of being overcome or at least ameliorated, by supportiveness.
Important as these features are, they pale by comparison to a fourth difference, which is that friends have a history together. They have a common language, a shared culture, a sense of interconnection. Each is "on record" to the others as being a certain kind of person. Each of the stories that they tell about this or that conflict within their ranks is enmeshed in larger narratives about their intertwined pasts. This places a limit on what they can credibly say to one another on any given occasion and still be "themselves."
What I am suggesting is not that friendship circles are always models of perfection in their discourse about moral conflicts, but that there are characteristics intrinsic to friendships that are deserving of our attention as we look for exemplars of such discourse. These characteristics are especially worth pondering as we explore the possibilities for dialogue between disputants.
When I speak of dialogue in this essay, or of a dialogic rhetoric, it is not in the popularized sense of an "I" and a "Thou" merged into an eidetic discursive union, or of the spontaneous surrender of egos and identities to the "demands" of the conversation (Buber, 1958; Gadamer, 1975; also see Crapanzano, 1990). Dialogue involves displays of mutuality, amiability, support, but it also involves criticism, argument, attempted persuasion. It might thus be better characterized as a dialogic rhetoric.
Dialogue (as construed here) is appropriately postmodern in that its "truths" are situated, contingent, consensual, opinion-based, and process-dependent; thus hardly definitive. In the dialogue about opposed ideas, "No one has the last word because there is no last word" (Swearingen, 1990:64). Dialogic rhetoric undermines traditional epistemology by displacing its foundational logic, "taking away the axis of decision from ideas and entrusting it to the rhetoric of argumentation" (Maranhao, 1990:1). It is suspect, and properly so, because it begins from opinion, rather than from necessary or indubitable truths; because the local logic of the dialogue--the threads connecting question and reply, argument and counterargument, example and generalization, etc., in its turns of talk--"may reflect accommodations having little to do with categories of knowledge regarded as true and right" (Maranhao, 1990:1); and because its tests--of edification, insight, agreement, and the like--are at best intersubjective. Still, it provides opportunity for reasonable comparison of positions in the context of actions taken and lives lead. Says McKeon (1990:35),
Dialogue is statement and counterstatement, based on ordinary ways of life and ordinary uses of language, with no possible appeal to a reality beyond opposed opinions except through opinions about reality. Truth is perceived in perspective, and perspectives can be compared, but there is no overarching, inclusive perspective. Meanings are defined in action and measurement, and there is no theory apart from practice. Method is the art of seizing and interpreting the opinions of others and of constructing and defending one's own. Virtue is method translated into intelligent self-interest and respect for others.
Presupposed by this conception of dialogue is the possibility for criticism of the other balanced by support, and of skeptical, suspicious readings of the other's meanings, methods, and motives balanced by a hermeneutics of charity or collaboration. Rawlins (1983) speaks in this connection of friendship as involving a "dialectics of expressiveness and protectiveness."
[A]n individual faces the contradictory tendencies of protecting self by restricting personal disclosure and of striving to be open by confiding in the other. At the same time, self confronts the contrasting urges to protect other by exercising discretion and to be candid with other. Whenever friends talk, these predicaments potentially come into play.
No one claims that friendship relations are easy, and Rawlins provides here an elegant statement of why they are not. Although Rawlins provides evidence that the oppositions he speaks of tend in practice to get played out in widely divergent ways, it seems to me that, implicit in his formulation, is the possibility for dialectical transcendence of these oppositions. Criticism, judiciously offered, should ideally become a kind of supportiveness, while self-disclosure becomes simultaneously a form of self-protection.
This ideal finds expression in conceptions of "friendly criticism," as embodied in the academy. It has its roots in ancient Greek notions of civic friendship as encompassing the moral courage to offer candid criticism to others (MacIntyre, 1981). Before sailing into a devastating critique of a paper that had just been presented at a philosophy symposium, the respondent, philosopher Richard Bernstein, informed his audience that he and the paper-presenter were great friends. Having in this way introduced his own commentary, Bernstein proceeded to take the paper apart. Turning, then, to his friend on the platform, Bernstein acknowledged that his criticisms had been quite candid, and that on most public occasions he tended to be more circumspect in his criticisms. In this case, he said, he felt it was his obligation to furnish as powerful a critique as he could muster. "After all," said Bernstein, "what are good friends for?"
In theory, then, the friendship circle provides a promising arena for the adjudication of ethical disputes in a post-modern age. Far more than the legal tribunal, the friendship circle is promotive of dialogue, and of a needed balance between criticism and supportiveness, skeptical readings and charitable readings in the co-construction of the relevant narrative. Through dialogue the friendship circle can be expected to contextualize the immediate dispute within the larger narrative of their intertwined histories. In so doing they render their judgments context- and community-specific but not necessarily unreasonable or unempirical. That is saying a lot for judgments about the ethics of past actions in a post-modern age.