Season 2, Episode 10 - Honors College dean John Corvino explains how to "build a better argument" without sacrificing civility

Episode description

Honors College dean John Corvino talks about the art of crafting a better argument.

Episode Notes

John Corvino, dean of Wayne State University's Irvin D. Reid Honors College, talks with host Darrell Dawsey about the importance of crafting strong and effective ideological arguments that nevertheless encourage civility and humanity even in disagreement.   


John Corvino is dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College, having succeeded founding dean Jerry Herron in May 2018. He is also a professor in the Wayne State Philosophy Department, which he joined in 1998 and where he served as department chair from 2012 to 2017.

Corvino holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. from St. John's University, New York, whose own honors program he credits for a strong educational foundation. Much of his scholarly research focuses on controversial "culture war" issues regarding ethics, sexuality and marriage. He is the author of numerous articles, as well as three books from Oxford University Press: Debating Same-Sex Marriage (with Maggie Gallagher, 2012), What's Wrong with Homosexuality? (2013), and Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (with Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis, 2017).

An active "public philosopher," Corvino has also written for The New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, Commonweal and other popular venues, and he has appeared on CNN, ABC, FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, and other TV and radio networks. His online videos have received over 2 million views.

Additional Resources

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Announcer:                   Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community with news announcements, information, and current events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission. Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:             Welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast. I'm your host, Darrell Dawsey. To many, Americans are more divided these days than at any time since perhaps the Civil War. We don't seem able to agree on much anymore, whether it be what constitutes equal access to the ballot, or a woman's right to reproductive rights, or even the efficacy of masks and vaccines in the midst of a once in a century pandemic. We don't know how to talk to each other anymore many will say. We don't even know how to argue with each other anymore.

                                    My next guest has some very compelling thoughts to share about our ongoing national debates. Not so much about what we're debating as much as how we're debating one another. John Corvino, PhD, Dean of the Honors College at Wayne State, as well as a professor of philosophy, has earned a national reputation for his thoughts on the art of debate, and how we can learn to start listening to one another better, as well as how we can more effectively make our points to those who disagree. Corvino's research mainly focuses on controversial culture war issues surrounding sexuality and marriage.

                                    He's the author or co-author of three books from Oxford University Press, Debating Same-sex Marriage with Maggie Gallagher. What's Wrong with Homosexuality, and most recently, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination with Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Gergis. In addition to his books and scholarly articles, Corvino has contributed to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Huffington Post, the New Republic, and many other popular venues. And now he's been kind enough to join us here on Today@Wayne podcast. Welcome, Dean Corvino.

John Corvino:                It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             Great to have you, always good to talk with you. Well, we laid it out. I mean, basically, I just want to talk about how we talk to one another. First of all, I'm just curious, a lot of people say, "We're more divided than ever. We're more polarized than ever." Do you think so, and if so, why?

John Corvino:                So certainly polarization has been part of our history as a nation, as human beings, right? If we look throughout history, people tend to form tribes. They fight with one another. That is nothing new. I think what is new is that we have means of communication these days that tend to make matters worse. I'm talking about social media. I am talking about various other forms of electronic communication, which can exacerbate the problems in multiple ways. One is it tends to favor soundbite exchanges as opposed to more nuanced, thoughtful exchanges. Another is that it allows us to form sort of insular communities where we just choose people that already agree with us, and we don't talk across divides, and we don't get challenged on our ideas and have a fuller exchange.

                                    And then another is that many of these apps, these social media apps, they're not really designed with our interest in mind. They're designed to make money for the businesses that invest in them, and how do they make money? Well, by getting more clicks, and how do they get more clicks? By generating outrage, right? Yeah, cute puppy videos, that'll get some clicks, but we know from lots of research nowadays that fake news will spread faster than real news. Why? Because people say, "Oh my goodness. What's going on?" And they start sharing that with their friends, and it's in the interest of these companies financially to do that, but it's not necessarily in our interest and serving our needs. And all of those things I think have contributed to polarization happening more deeply and more quickly than it ever would've happened in the past.

Darrell Dawsey:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). And what's the effect of that? What does that mean for us as Americans, as members of a democratic republic, as a members of a nation that supposedly relies heavily on good information to make good decision?

John Corvino:                I think one of the most important things it means is that it makes it harder for us to solve shared problems. You mentioned mask mandates. The pandemic is a problem that has hit all of us. It has affected us health wise. We've lost lives to it. It's affected people financially, it's affected the vibrancy of our communities. It's so nice to be back here on campus right now, where we're finally interacting in person again, and starting to feel a sense of the academic culture here on campus. So we all recognize that the pandemic has been a real problem, but the issue of mask wearing and other preventative measures, the vaccine, has become so politicized and so polarized that instead of being able to look carefully and thoughtfully at the evidence, we again form these camps, and have a harder time solving that shared problem, and it is a shared problem. It's not a red state problem or a blue state problem. It's a shared problem.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well then what do we do about it? You've written extensively about how to engage. I've seen some of your debates. You've handled even some of the most onerous opinions and ideas, I think, with a great deal of [inaudible 00:05:38], a great deal of calm and respect for people on the other side of the aisle. How do you translate that to the rest of us?

John Corvino:                That's a very good question. And one thing I'm going to say is one thing we think we might do about it is probably not as effective as we think it is, because we think that if people have better data or better training in data, then that'll help us solve the problem. Unfortunately, the problem is deeper than that. Dan Kahan is a social scientist and law professor at Yale University, and in 2013, he and his colleagues wanted to do a study to see the effect of political polarization on our problem solving ability.

                                    So he got a group of subjects, and he started by measuring their political leanings and their math abilities. So he gave them all a series of questions, then he divided them into groups based on political leanings broadly, conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats. These are broad and rough categories, but he was trying to capture the whole red, blue, right, left divide. And then he also gave them a series of math questions, and assigned them a numeracy score. Then he took half the subjects and gave them a fake study. It was a fictional study about a new skin cream. They didn't know it was fictional.

                                    And he said, "Okay, this many people used the skin cream and the rash got better. This many people used the skin cream, and their rash got worse. Then we had the control group. This many people didn't use the skin cream, rash got better. This many people didn't use the skin cream, rash got worse. Which result does the study support, that people are better off using the skin cream, or worse off using the skin cream?" And not surprisingly, people's answers did not tend to vary based upon their political leaning, whether they were conservative Republican or liberal Democrat in his scoring didn't seem to make a difference to their tendency to get the right answer.

                                    And also not surprisingly, the better they had been at math, the more likely they were to get the right answer, because you had to calculate ratios and things to get the right answer. Then he took the other half of the subjects and gave them charts with the exact same numbers. So it's the same math problem, except instead of being a study about a new skin cream, it was a about gun control laws.

Darrell Dawsey:             Wow.

John Corvino:                This many cities had the gun control laws, crime got better. This many cities had the gun control laws, crime got worse. This many cities who didn't have it, control groups, crime got better, crime got worse, which result does the study support? Now, this is the exact same math problem. We should get the exact same results, right? Now, you're not going to be surprised that is not what happened. In fact, people's tendency to get the right answer varied very much based upon whether the right answer corresponded with their preexisting leanings about gun control, which liberals tend to support, conservatives tend to oppose, generally speaking.

                                    And the worst part... And this is the long story that I'm getting to here. The worst part is that having better math ability did not seem to make any difference to people's tendency to get the right answer in the gun control version of the problem. So what does this tell us? Well, one of the things it tells us is that this is not a right wing problem or a left wing problem. It is a human problem, right? This was both sides tending to do the same thing on this, and I think a lot of people like to say, "Oh, right wingers don't believe in science," or, "Left wingers are not grounded in reality." And I think there are questions we could point to where there may be some truth to those statements, but the problem starts earlier than that. The problem is that people are just not looking at the evidence unless looking at the evidence helps reinforce what their group says, what their tribe says.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. That's called confirmation bias. Is that not [crosstalk 00:09:32]?

John Corvino:                Confirmation bias, exactly.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay.

John Corvino:                And part of what this also shows us is that better training in STEM, better training in data is not necessarily going to help us solve the problem, or at least it's not going to be sufficient, because remember, having higher numeracy scores, better math scores, did not make a difference in the second study. So what does make a difference? This was a long-winded answer to get to your question, which is how do we solve this problem? I think there are a number of things we need to do.

                                    I think one of the things goes back to something I said a little bit earlier about social media, recognizing the limits of that, recognizing that these... And look, I use so media. I use Facebook. I use Twitter a little bit. I'm a lurker on Instagram. I don't really use it, but we use these things, and I think they can be very valuable things, but when it comes to political debates, when it comes to debates about socially significant issues, they are not generally helpful. And in fact, they can be counter productive, and I think it's important for us to recognize that, because they're designed, again, to get more clicks, not necessarily to spread the best information.

                                    Another thing I would say that I think is very, very important is to think about building relationships first. You mentioned some of the debate books I've done, and I traveled the country debating with Maggie Gallagher, debating with Ryan Anderson and Sherif Gergis, and I would often have student groups come up to me after these debates and say, "This is great. We're the college Republicans and the college Democrats, and what should we do? Should we have a debate? Should we have a panel?" And I would say to them, "You should have pizza." If you're against pizza, you're a moral monster, get away from me. No, so it's not always about the debate. It's not always about the argument.

                                    Sometimes it's about getting to know one another, sitting down, building relationships with people, so that we can build that sort of zone of trust, and create a space where people can show a little bit of vulnerability, can express their doubts, can ask questions, can feel like they can engage in conversation without immediately being shut down for having the wrong tendencies or inclinations. And so I think that relationship building piece is important, and I also think it is important for us to find allies in this fight for better conversation, for better argument, for better dialogue. One of the things that the Kahan study shows, and that a lot of the research on this shows is that we tend to form tribes. We want to get along with people. We want to be approved by our peers.

                                    So we tend to go along with what they say without really looking at the evidence, but suppose we develop a group of peers that are really committed to nuance, or really committed to being thoughtful and moderate in dialogue, or really committed to cooperation across divides, then we can leverage that kind of peer pressure for a good end. And I think this is one of the really great things about being at a university, certainly being in the Irvin D. Reid Honors College, but more generally being at a place like Wayne State, where we're here in the search for truth. We can carve out a space where we say, "Look, we're going to do something different. We recognize all of the polarization out there, all of the fighting, but we're going to step back from that, and try to do something more constructive and thoughtful.

                                    And I think one of the reasons Wayne State is a really cool place to be able to do that is not only that we are a diverse campus, not only that we are a research one campus with amazing faculty and amazing students, but also there's a kind of Detroit keep it real spirit. I for so many years would do these kinds of debates and dialogues, and I've certainly been involved in situations, you've probably witnessed them as well, where people get together, and it's like, "Oh, I'm going to dialogue with the other side, and then I'm going to pat myself on the back for how open minded I am." And then they just go back to their regular sound bites, and I think Detroit is a place it's like, "Look, we're busy people. We're hardworking people. We want to sort of keep it real. We want to get to the heart of the matter." And I think that's one of the cool things about being here at Wayne State.

Darrell Dawsey:             Are there arguments, are there positions that someone can hold that, ultimately, do perhaps make it untenable for you to be able to have that kind of relationship or build that kind of... James Baldwin once made a statement, "We can disagree about number of things. I can debate with you about..." And I'm paraphrasing here, but he says, "Ultimately, I cannot debate with somebody who thinks that I don't have a right to exist. There is no argument. There is no discussion there." That person must be, for lack of a better term, defeated, right? Whether it's politically or whatever. Do you agree with that? Are there those positions that folks can have where there's just simply no way we're going to find common ground?

John Corvino:                Well, certainly, it's not going to be for somebody like me to disagree with luminary like James Baldwin, but what I would say in response to that, because I think it's absolutely true that there are times where debate is not productive, where engaging the debate suggests a kind of legitimacy to the other side that we do not want to grant to that side. And certainly, when we're talking about somebody's very right to exist, that would be a clear case of that, but a couple things I would say. One is that very often we tend to frame it in terms of right to exist when it's really not entirely about that. So we're talking about the same-sex marriage debate, and people would sometimes say to me, "How can you sit down at a table with Mary Maggie Gallagher when she doesn't even want you to exist?"

                                    And I'm like, "Well, that's just not true of Maggie Gallagher. She is not trying to obliterate me and gay people from the face of the earth. We disagree on some very important things. I think it's important to be clear and honest about that, but my very right to exist and to exist safely, and peacefully, and so on is not among the things we disagree about." The other thing I would say is I think that there is often a mistake that people make when we call for thoughtful dialogue, or relatedly, we call for things like civility, and this is related to some of the things that Baldwin said on this, that we are therefore saying that we've got to kind of soft-pedal our disagreement, that we've got to remain silent in the face of injustice, that we've got to pretend that everything's okay when everything's not okay, and that is not my view at all.

                                    I think that it is possible to disagree vigorously and sharply, but still thoughtfully and in a nuanced way that is proportioned to the evidence. So, yes, I agree with Baldwin, but I think it's easy for people to misinterpret that position as doing and implying much more than it actually does.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Okay. Through all of this, I mean, the objective is to be able to disagree and share your ideas, listen to other people's ideas. At any point, is converting the other person, winning somebody over to your side, is that a realistic and desirable goal?

John Corvino:                So, sure. But one thing I would say here is I don't know that I would say that the objective is to disagree, or to agree to disagree, or I think that sometimes one of the things that when they see the debate books or the debates, they think it's a kind of theater, but we get up, and we're just trying to show how we can disagree. Well, no. I argued with Maggie Gallagher, because I thought she was wrong, and I thought she was wrong in ways that were harmful to society. She thought I was wrong, and she thought I was wrong in ways that were harmful to society. And ideally, even if I didn't convince her, I certainly wanted to convince the audience that I was right, and she was wrong. And she would, of course, say the same thing.

                                    I think one of the things that's very important in all of this is to think about what our ultimate goals are, and I think that this goes back to some of the things that we do in the humanities. I'm a philosophy professor, as well as being Dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College, but we talk about human flourishing. We talk about what it means to live a flourishing life in community with other people, because often our flourishing depends upon friendships, relationships, community relationships, civic relationships. And I think we it's really important for us to stay focused on those goals, because I think sometimes what happens is that people forget that politics is not the point, or that disagreement and debate is not the point. The point is figuring out how we can live flourishing lives in a world where we have to share the world with other people, and we're having these debates to do that.

                                    There's an analogy I sometimes use, and since we're getting into fall, this is a good time to talk about this. So we're getting into fall, and it's pretty soon going to be the time where we start turning the heat back on in the house. And I'm one of these stubborn people who likes to wait really long to turn the heat on. Now, suppose I like to keep my thermostat at 65 degrees, and you like to keep your thermostat at 75 degrees. Well, fine. You keep your thermostat where you want it. I keep my thermostat where I want it.

                                    Suppose we live in the same house, right? The kinds of debates that we're talking about when we talk about these controversial issues concern our house. They concern the world that we share together. They concern things that we're either going to have in our house, or not going to have in our house. Whether we're talking about racial justice, whether we're talking about immigration, whether we're talking about mask mandates, vaccine mandates, we're talking about sharing this world together, and the point is to figure out a way to do this where we can flourish as much as we can.

Darrell Dawsey:             And that brings me to my next question. We're going to get ready to wrap it up. I know you're busy. I don't want to take too much of your time, and I appreciate you [crosstalk 00:19:52].

John Corvino:                My pleasure.

Darrell Dawsey:             But it makes me think. Okay, so where do you see us going from here? Are you hopeful given the state of polarization that we can as a nation get past this, and begin to dialogue with one another in a way that is productive, and humane, and civil, or do you see this just as becoming more rancorous, more bitter, and more unproductive? Just kind of your thoughts on that.

John Corvino:                It could go either way, right? And I think it's up to us how it goes. It's up to us, and I think, again, at the university in particular, at a place like Wayne State, we have an opportunity and a challenge to do something different, to say, "Look, we're not going to get caught up in all of this. We're not going to be distracted by the rage, and the emotion, and the outrage machine that we see on social media, that we see on cable news, and so on. We are going to do something different." And I remain optimistic. It's one of the nice things about being you in academia, to say, "Look, we're going to do something different." And when I talk to our students today, I think there's a lot of hunger for something different and for something better, and they keep me optimistic.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay, Great. Well, is there anything else you want to add before we close out, anything maybe I forgot to ask, or something you want to emphasize?

John Corvino:                No, I think that this has been very, very helpful, and I would simply underscore, and maybe I'm starting to sound too much like a Dean, because I'll start talking about the university and the honors college, but I do think that Wayne State is uniquely situated to address these kinds of things, both as an urban research university, and as a place that has that kind of Detroit keep it real, we can do it kind of spirit, and I think that's one of the things that makes it really exciting to be here.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right. Well we want to encourage our listeners and viewers to make sure they go out and pick up your books, the most recent one being Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. We urge folks to check it out, some great ideas, and it's a great read. And I just want to thank you again, Dean Corvino, for taking the time to join us on the Today@Wayne Podcast.

John Corvino:                It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             All right. You have a wonderful day, and we look forward to having you back again.

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