Interesting questions of political ethics are presented by the various “disruptions” enacted by some “Bernie or Bust” delegates on the DNC convention floor, obviously related, at least in part, to real arguments about “deliberative democracy” and “agonistic democracy.” These oppositions can easily be oversimplified. Some adherents of “deliberation” clearly know that forms of agonism and contention are unavoidable, and some adherents of “agonism” and contention clearly recognize that “agonistic respect” is an important thing. This is not a simple matter.

I make no pretense of resolving it here. I will confess to being annoyed and troubled by some of the disruption. But I have also publicly stated that contention is part of politics, and some of the indignation of the angry Sanders supporters is both understandable and appropriate — within limits. Indeed I think Obama said it well in his speech, which sought to embrace rather than denounce the protestors: it is all more or less part of the process. There were orchestrated speeches, there were a few moments of tension, and things proceeded. Fine. At the same time, when delegates to a political party try to shout down leaders of their party at a televised convention centering on the Presidential election, and the opposition candidate is an authoritarian demagogue whose campaign centers on bringing “law and order,” serious questions about political judgment arise. I do not believe that any writer can settle these questions for others or even for him or herself. I do believe that a blog post is probably not the place to attempt a meaningful reflection on the complexities.

So instead of an argument, a story. A true story.

Years ago in a graduate seminar on democratic theory, a very fine group of my students were discussing these very issues. I think it is fair to say that the political spectrum ranged from the Habermassian left to the Foucauldian left — not a very large slice of the political spectrum in the world at large. An earnest adherent of “deliberation” was making his case about the importance of reason-giving and reciprocal respect, and a clever adherent of an “agonistic” perspective was objecting at every turn, insisting that there is no language or communication outside of power, and thus no basis on which to privilege any notion of a discourse ethic over any other mode of conduct. The idea that people ought to give reasons, or let others speak, was thus powerfully challenged. “It’s all power. Your ‘ethic’ is a form of policing.” Then something happened. The “deliberativist” stood up, walked over to the “agonist,” and said “Go fuck yourself.” Everyone was taken aback, myself included. He then repeated himself more loudly. The agonist was horrified. And then it was said, again and again, more loudly every time. “Go fuck yourself.”

Don’t ask what pedagogical skills I employed to defuse the situation and return the class to the discussion at hand.

All the same, a point was quite dramatically made: a line had been crossed by the verbal assault, and the crossing was problematic. No one in the room thought it was okay that the agonist was shouted down like that, and no one was more indignant than the agonist himself. It was wrong. Apparently there are times when it just wrong to shout down others, and right to follow a certain decorum.

What are those times and places? When is it appropriate to disrupt speeches and shout down those with whom you disagree? Who are the proper targets of such shouting? Are the shouters really prepared to accept this mode of conduct when applied to them? Or are they enacting “a performative contradiction” when they state “we want more open discussion and debate” and then they seek to silence others? And do such contradictions matter, ethically and intellectually, even if one is not a “Kantian” who believes that all ethical conduct must consistently apply a universal rule?

These are very important questions. I do not believe there are simple answers to them, in general or in the case.

But I am afraid that too many of the people I saw shouting do not regard them as questions at all. I hope I am wrong. I intend to do my part, as a writer and as a teacher, to prove this fear misplaced. But I am afraid. There is too much angry shouting. One of the two major candidates for President is an angry shouter. I think it will take something else to defeat him and to make our country an even marginally more just place to live. I also think it will take a lot to make the country a place where there is a more vigorous, inclusive, and intelligent public discourse about matters of consequence. May each of us do our part.