In the past few weeks, things blew up at Duke Divinity School. Paul Griffiths launched a salvo against the legitimacy of the voluntary diversity training in the school, and created a firestorm. The documents published by Rod Dreher reveal a situation that is complicated and rife with misunderstanding.

Though I have no inside information, a line from Griffiths’s recent “swansong” to the academy struck me as revelatory of what may underlie the debate. Griffiths’s appeal to his English working-class background and his academic formation in the “the snidely and aggressively English dialectic of debate” speak to a culturally specific form of argumentation that does not always translate well into an American context.

During my brief sojourn in the English system, I became accustomed to the English model of clear argumentation spiced with wit and supported by a well-crafted rejoinder. For those not used to such an approach, it can feel more like a bludgeoning with a long sword than the incisive jabs of a rapier. There is always a fine line between destroying an argument and destroying the person who made it.

This approach teaches you to turn words into weapons in the service of argument. It can begin with a series of questions, seemingly innocent and yet designed to ferret out weaknesses. Depending on the answer, the second round of questions may be punctuated by “Surely you don’t mean X,” or a series of well-placed modifiers (“gross” oversimplification, “fallacious” reasoning, etc.). Appeals to authority are sometimes dismissed with a simple wave of the hand (“Shortest dissertation in the history of that school” was one such dismissal I witnessed). For those who understand it, this cultural form is a kind of rhetorical flair designed to elicit a strong response, rather than deliver an actual blow to the argument.

I experienced reverse culture-shock after moving back to the U.S., when I offered a critique of a paper written by a colleague. I had assumed that my own concern for the colleague’s argument would come through in the careful way I had read the paper. Not so. I discovered that I had offended not only my colleague, but many observers, who rushed in as though my criticisms had done permanent damage. I realized that I had to find softer ways to criticize my American colleagues, who had not been formed in the hard-hitting English system.

One thing to be said for that “aggressively English dialectic of debate” is that it has a leveling effect among socio-economic classes. On the other side of the pond, where regional accents function as signifiers of whether one is cultured or not, the art of skillful argumentation can make equals out of those who come from different classes. One learns to stand on the strength of argument alone.

This art of verbal jousting does not fit in the postmodern world, so concerned with providing safe spaces. Verbal jousting is an invitation to respond in kind, much as “joning” functions in the African-American community to cultivate and display verbal skills that integrate individuals into the community. Yes, joning can lead to violence—just as there is a reason why, at an Oxford viva in the Middle Ages, there was to be precisely one sword length between the examiners and the examined.

But joning has also prepared the way for the more sophisticated kinds of argument found within the poetic styles of the prophetic tradition of preaching in the Black Church. The rhetorical punch remains in both joning and preaching, but its reference changes in the latter, as a well-crafted phrase calls out the profane and embodies the sacred. The prophetic in black preaching is a form of argument that calls someone or something to a reckoning and thus invites action and response. Understanding this cultural form of argument, we begin to get a sense for the other side of the challenges at Duke Divinity—the complaint by African-American students that the Black Church and black modes of preaching and argument need to be taken more seriously.

There are no doubt many dimensions to the recent events at Duke Divinity, but I cannot help thinking that one of them is a misunderstanding of cultural forms of argument and their functions. Griffiths wanted to cross swords with his colleagues, but his invitation was viewed as a form of violence. In the same way, the distinctive style of preaching within the Black Church is a form of verbal jousting with God, the devil, and all the destructive powers.

I wonder whether diversity training is not having the opposite of its intended effect—rather than helping us see and understand cultural forms, it is flattening them out, and all in the name of saving them.

Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.

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