Our centuries’ old democracy depends on open discussion and debate. A free exchange of ideas often results in proposals being aired, countered, adjusted and re-asserted with refinements and compromises added. We seemed to have abandoned that fundamental premise of civil discourse and resorted instead to verbally attacking one’s opponents.
To me, it seems that the desire to inject political correctness into social speech, has resulted in the opposition being slammed as racists, sexists, xenophobes, bullies, Nazis, and other dismissive and tar-brushing labels, instead of rationally addressing disagreement with the ideas expressed.
A cogent example can be found in the wave of attacks on, or boycotts of, proposed speakers at universities. This has occurred recently at UT, and from recent memory at NYU, Middlebury College, Rutgers, University of Chicago and University of California (Berkeley) where demonstrators have sought the exclusion of speakers whose ideas or political leanings were contrary to their own. Think about that. The original purpose of a university was to analyze and debate ideas as a part of the search for knowledge and truth.
At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Professor Amy Wax has been excoriated for suggesting in an Op-ed article that the “bourgeois culture” or values of the 1960s produced hard-working, civic-minded individuals and families who were neighborly, respectful of authority and charitable citizens. She contrasted that with a society currently plagued with high levels of drug abuse, homicidal violence in inner cities, with half of the current children being raised by a single-parent, and also with many of our college students lacking basic skills when compared to students from other countries.
In writing the first article, Wax welcomed reasoned debate “using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments” about why her opinion might be wrong. In short, a dialogue, an evaluation of the causes of current ills.
Instead, a number of other U Penn professors, as well as students, condemned the article as racist, white supremacist, xenophobic and “heteropatriarchal” (whatever that is). Thirty-three fellow professors signed an open letter condemning Professor Wax without engaging in any substantive argument or reasoning about the issues raised. Some asked that she be removed from the classroom and academic committees. The dean suggested she take a leave of absence from teaching.
WHAT? Is this a modern university or a Soviet gulag? You can read her articulate public rebuttal, “The Closing of the Academic Mind,” in the Feb. 17, 2018, Wall Street Journal (Review Section, pages 1-2).
But forget those particulars. Debate is healthy. Testing your reasoning is healthy. Hell, you might even learn something. As eighteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill admonished: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Free speech of necessity is a two-way street.
Democracy, and indeed all learning, depends on free and open debate, and rational thinking. Let’s listen to all sides before hammering down on a position. The Saul Alinsky tactic of attacking the speaker personally is short-sighted at best. Perhaps you can suppress or force opposing beliefs underground. But is that good in the long run? “Sunlight is,” as Justice Louis Brandeis reminded us, “the best of disinfectants.”
So, let’s shelve the epithets … and restore civil discourse to our society.
Nick Della Volpe is an attorney who served eight years on Knoxville City Council, representing District 4 – East Knoxville and Fountain City.