Roadhouse Rules

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Many times over the past decade, I have cited a scene from the wonderfully campy film, Roadhouse. A professional “cooler” – a head bouncer capable of ending any fight – Dalton has been brought to the “Double Deuce,” a low-down, honky-tonk watering hole, ribboned with drugs and sex and violence. After pruning off the criminal elements from the bar staff, he explains to the rest of the bouncer posse the best rules of engagement. Be nice, he says. Be nice, even if the other guy pokes you, slaps you, or talks trash. Be nice, because the point is that in a nice place, there should be nice people, and no one should jump right to the part where civility is lost and the fight is upon us. Dalton’s job as a cooler, he explains, is to decide when niceness is no longer necessary. And that moment only comes, we learn over the film, when a patron’s base instincts ruin the interior good vibes of the new Double Deuce. When that happens, the troublemaker is removed, so that the dancing and singing and genial fun – the stuff of a better life – can continue inside.

I cite this film whenever people get angry, or whenever my friends and colleagues worry about an upcoming meeting when tensions are high. “Remember that scene in Roadhouse?,” I will ask, when a looming discussion or vote seems overdetermined. And then I’ll send them a link to the scene I’ve pasted above. I do this not because I’m passive aggressive or conflict averse. Nor do I do it because I’m some wide-eyed country boy. I do it because I believe – sincerely – that the two most important things we do as academics, as scholar-teachers, as mentors, as friends and lovers, and as citizens, are to show polite respect to divergent viewpoints, and to foster the conditions for the just-as-polite scrutiny of those opposing views by our publics. I don’t believe that all viewpoints should be given equal weight – a philosophy that might be jokingly described as the “David Brooks false equivalency thesis” – but I do believe that the point of having a debate isn’t just to see who “wins,” but also to ensure that the conditions of the debate, including the participation of the rogue’s gallery, are rich with opportunities for sober reflection, critical scrutiny, and civil inquiry.

We are potentially the Daltons of this world, the coolers of a new, media-saturated landscape in which no one waits or thinks before speaking, in which a Twitter platform or a personal blog can generate a enough “fame” or “celebrity” to merit a regular paycheck. Outrage has long been an industry, but it took Twitter to democratize it, to give everyone a chance at small-scale proprietorship.

We are potentially the Daltons of this world, and we are losing.

Within the Double Deuce, the terms of victory are as important as victory itself. To win by shouting, or shaming, or through the strategic deployment of cruelty isn’t merely bad form, it also suggests that the argument can’t be won with words and ideas and information. Only an impoverished argument relies on screaming sentiment. On hate speech. On shaming. Only an impoverished thinker issues an assault on his or her antipode’s character. Such impoverishments belong outside.

This has been on my mind lately because of the passionate debate on Tenured Radical’s site. Over the weekend, the always-sharp Claire Potter offered her opinions on the scheduled symposium at Brooklyn College, featuring speakers who represented, in some fashion, the organization known as “BDS,” which argues for a tri-fold strategy of boycotts, disinvestments, and sanctions on behalf of the Palestinian people. After saying kind words about the speakers that day, Potter suggested that she was “unconvinced” that the question of Palestine might be “the great moral issue of our time,” and wondered whether a boycott of ideas – and more specifically, a cessation of conversation with progressive Israeli academics – would make things better and not worse. TR said other things, too, some of them pointedly strident (she writes an opinion blog, after all) and some, given her usual tone and that day’s topic, proactively defensive. The very next day, she generously gave over her blog to UCLA’s David Delgado Shorter, who wrote an equally generous “opposing view,” laying out his argument, in the broadest of terms, about specifics of disinvestment and boycotting and sanctions, and, more generally, about the ethics and morals of academics, himself included. I wish their spirited, opinionated, intellectually rich back-and-forth would continue.

Alas, I think it will not. Because the comments section in TR’s feed erupted into a spit-flecked, shouting, bullying circus, dominated by people who don’t typically appear on that site. Including some of the luminaries of my world. In jarring contrast to the civil debate conducted, (as it were) above the fold, there was only Thunderdome in the comments. TR, who always participates, did so again with her usual unrelenting combination of wit and snark. So, too, did Shorter, with his abiding, charming thoughtfulness. But it got ugly fast in the comments. And then the ugliness moved to twitter. And on other blogs. At some early point, the chance at real conversation died.

Anyone who calls themselves a “Progressive” can do better than Thunderdome. It isn’t progressive to shout “You Lie!.” And it isn’t progressive to yell and scream and get nasty. That better stuff of life is supposed to be what we are cultivating in our classrooms, in our domestics, and in our departments. When we take an emotional shortcut, it makes it seem as if we lack the ideas, or that our ideas lack the necessary depth, to make a stronger case, to foster a consensus, to build communitas. Be nice, people. Be nice, first. Be nice, even to people you don’t like. Be nice even to those you hate.

Real radicalism is a continued faith in the polite and free and fair exchange of serious ideas and unresolved moral conflicts at great length, and the common interrogation of momentous issues in front of an audience that cares just as deeply about seriousness as it does discretion. That faith can’t be condensed into 140 characters.  Real radicalism doesn’t care about the cheap victories that come with every 24 hour news cycle, or the sanctimony that accompanies the back-slapping support of a few thousand followers, the blocking of “trolls,” and the policing of the web. Real radicalism might have a single truth, but it also mobilizes evidence and argument – and not spit and venom – to sway its audience. It recognizes that, over the long haul, a divisive, angry tone makes it harder to reach a much broader public, to generate popular commitment to important policies and relevant histories. Real radicalism doesn’t give up on a single mind.  Ever.

Until, as Dalton would put it, it is time not to be nice.