March 16, 2017


A Leftist and a Conservative Join Forces to Defend Free Speech (Conor Friedersdorf, Mar. 16th, 2017, The Atlantic)

[T]here is a new effort, undertaken largely by people who are alarmed by illiberalism on the political right, to turn some of their attention to illiberalism on campus, as if heeding Hayek's advice to revitalize old truths for a new generation.

An incident at Middlebury College appears to have been particularly galvanizing.

Days after protesters shouted down social scientist Charles Murray, insisting that the man who wrote The Bell Curve, a book that posited a genetic explanation for measured gaps in IQ differences between racial groups, should not be permitted to speak on campus--then mobbed him as he tried to leave Middlebury, injuring a professor walking alongside him--two of America's most prominent public intellectuals, leftist philosopher Cornel West and conservative legal scholar Robert P. George, are allying to tout the value of an unencumbered public discourse.

Best to begin with their most important sentence.

"All of us should be willing--even eager--to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments," the men declared in a public statement.

That standard neatly sidesteps the tricky troll problem.

Beyond trolls, the men give little wiggle room, insisting that neither matters of great import nor the fraught subject of identity is exempt.  "The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage," they insist, "especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held--even our most cherished and identity-forming--beliefs."

Counseling respective engagement even with those "perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous," and invoking "the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth," they lament "all-too-common efforts" by people "to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities." And while they nod toward the right to peaceful protest, rightfully calling it "sacrosanct," they urge that "before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it not better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?"

That ethos "protects us against dogmatism and groupthink," they note, "both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies."

Posted by at March 16, 2017 8:40 AM