by Kevin Currie-Knight
It started as a casual conversation between myself and a colleague, but quickly went in a heated and interesting direction. She and I were talking about our teaching, and I mentioned some class readings and discussions my sections were doing on a particular issue that my colleague and I both care about. As is usual for me, I have students do readings on multiple sides of the issue, and I generally try to give voice to all sides, allowing all their due. It doesn’t hurt that on the issue in question, I don’t have terribly firm or settled opinions anyway.
Unlike myself, my colleague does have a favored side on this particular issue, and she either found it hard or didn’t try to hide her dismay at my mention that students were not only reading an endorsement of that position, but detraction from it. To paraphrase her message, she was concerned that, since there is a clearly correct position to take on this issue – and since that position is as just as it is transgressive in the face of obvious injustice – I arguably do a disservice to students by not unmistakably advocating for it and against its opponent. By wanting to “leave students free to make up their own minds,” I am depriving them of adequate guidance and inadvertently perpetuating injustice.
Arguably, there is a big difference in general worldview between my colleague and me. On many issues that we’ve talked about, she has a very clear sense of what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust, who is good and noble, and who is nefarious and regressive. I, on the other hand, believe that while sometimes these things are clear, in other cases and for a variety of reasons, the world is a much murkier and messier, dynamic, pluralistic, and downright hard-to-read place. If she is an activist, I am a skeptic. 
For most of my academic and philosophical career, I have found myself drawing inspiration from philosophers who are skeptics in the face of system-builders, relativists and pluralists in the face of monism, and to use Thomas Sowell’s terminology, devotees of the constrained rather than the unconstrained version(s) of the human condition.
For instance, I have become more skeptical regarding visions that depict a universe where moral truths are universal or are so consistent with each other that they may be attained without deep trade-offs and tragic struggle. I don’t think it likely that we will ever reach a world where we attain the hoped-for consensus on what is good, right, or beautiful. The world is too diverse for that, and I notice that philosophers who do imagine and look forward to such a consensus generally do so by clever tactics, such as limiting the consensus to “reasonable” people, or suggestions that such-and-such is “justified” or “permissible” without attending at all to the pesky “to whom?” question. I prefer Montaigne to Descartes, Nietzsche to Kant, and both Sextus and Protagoras to Plato.
All of this is to say that my skeptical reluctance to take hard stances in my classrooms is as much a philosophical position as a pedagogical one. I believe it is important for my students to hear and consider varying perspectives and that learning to think is more important than learning what the superior positions are. But even if I didn’t believe this, there are too many issues on which I just haven’t made up my mind – or where I have, on which I have the necessary confidence in my current position – to believe that it trumps the value of further exploration. I just don’t have the temperament required to be an activist.
But let me be fair to activists here. (Wouldn’t that be just like me?) I am quite sure that were my colleague to read this, she’d be horrified. It is, she might say, because of skeptics like you that positive change is so hard to achieve. You, she might say, never do anything or inspire change because you want the discussion to keep going, where in reality, all conversations end somewhere, and talking gets in the way of doing. Doing that is worth doing, she might say, also requires conviction, something you skeptics not only lack but hold little hope of inspiring in others. (I happen to know that my colleague has gotten many glowing teaching evaluations that I think were well-deserved, likely because she has the activists’ ability to inspire a sort of soul-changing passion in people. Skeptics can inspire passion, too, but likely not the type activists can.)
I think these are fair points, and the best conclusion I can reach is that neither activists nor skeptics should win the day or have the last word because the relationship between them is irreducibly symbiotic. Even if both would prefer it to be otherwise, they are reactions to each other that depend on each other.
I feel safe in saying that a world full of activists would be the type of hell that happens when everyone is certain all the time, where the goal of all activity is to impose The Known Right onto all, where pluralism, diversity, and disagreement are nothing more than problems to be solved by the hammer of uniform allegiance to The Creed.
On the other hand, a world of skeptics is the opposite: a world where nothing gets done because conviction is rare, where there are more questions than statements (and hence, no conversation), where no one has the nerve to right wrongs, where we are all so afraid of deciding wrongly that we never decide rightly. And thus, the status quo – no matter how short-sighted, imperfect, or unjust – prevails by default.
In truth, these are caricatures, and neither my colleague or I are completely one or the other. Activists like her do doubt, self-question, and revise, if maybe not to the extent that skeptics do. And we skeptics believe things with conviction, if not to the extent or confidence of our activists counterparts. Moreover, the dialectic between conviction and skepticism isn’t just interpersonal, but can be intrapersonal. Even in the single human mind, belief and doubt are both tendencies we all struggle with, where each of us figures out the most comfortable balance we can strike between these two “forces.”
If the relationship between activists and skeptics is irreducibly symbiotic, I suspect it is also irreducibly antagonistic. The irony is that while each “side” needs the other in order to make sense and curb potential excesses, the two sides most often prefer to see the other with some manner of contempt or incredulity. To the activist, the skeptic might appear at best to be oblivious or directionless, and at worst to be either an unwitting or dishonest agent of whoever already has the cultural power. (We’ve probably all heard the activists’ adage that refusing to choose a side effectively means supporting the already-stronger side.) To the skeptic, the activist looks at best naïve or ignorant in their certitude, and at worst, a cultist or tyrant. To be adversaries, however, doesn’t preclude mutual dependency.
In the end, my conclusion is a relatively Taoist one (and wouldn’t that be just like me?). One must recognize that the (human) world is a balance between different and (at least apparently) opposing forces. Conservatives provide the stasis required for stability where liberals or progressives provide the change that is required to adapt in a dynamic and contingent world. In a similar way, activists provide the conviction and drive to keep the world moving (in directions that could be good, bad, or otherwise, with those verdicts always decided after-the-fact). The skeptics provide the circumspection necessary to change courses and keep the world of possibilities open where activists seek to close them.
I myself have found good success and peace of mind thinking of things this way. When possible, I remind myself that while my headspace and temperament are the only ones I have direct access to, I am always part of systems of people of varying degrees of difference from me. Thus, the imperative is to figure out where my places in those larger systems are, and what strengths and limitations my own approach has within these systems. Thus, while I tend toward the more skeptical approaches to thinking about the world, I must recognize both the value of these approaches and how abjectly awful the world would be if I convinced everyone else to adopt them. But then again, isn’t that exactly what a skeptic should say?
 As chances have it, our interaction occurred several days after I’d read legal scholar Randall Kennedy’s essay outlining his strained relationship with colleague Derrick Bell. Bell is the intellectual father of critical race theory, and while Kennedy has some sympathy with CRT, his skepticism of certain aspects put a strain on his relationship with Bell. As if describing my relationship to my colleague, Kennedy writes of Bell:
Derrick was supremely confident that he knew what policy positions were the correct positions to adopt and thus the ones to urge his students to follow. He was so confident that he became impatient with others who lacked his certitude. He displayed this impatience by routinely portraying opponents as racists, naïfs, or opportunists. I lack his certitude and believe that there is good reason to be open-minded about a variety of hotly contested debates regarding race policy.