When Firebrands And Charlatans Come To Campus

September 2017

Social and political frustrations are causing a rise in hostility to freedom of expression, and we’re seeing the effects on campuses. Protests at universities have become increasingly disruptive, and the response from administrators has been less than reassuring. Professors are right to be mortified when they see students try to shut down panel discussions or de-platform speakers—mobs behave this way, but students are supposed to be training to engage with ideas as intellectuals. Whenever students abandon reason, universities and their administrators should do their best to uphold academic values and to preserve the culture of academic investigation and discussion.

One doesn’t need a lengthy and expensive education to abandon discussion and march in the streets, or to intimidate or shout down one’s opponents, and marching and shouting obstruct the lengthy and expensive education that students wish to receive. One purpose of education is precisely that of avoiding tribal conflicts. If you cannot argue your position convincingly, it’s harder for your ideas to win out without killing or subjugating the people who subscribe to the ideas you reject. The value of an education can, therefore, not only be counted in dollars, but also in human bodies.

The way to engage as an intellectual with what is false or pernicious is not by violence, but through critical discussion. If the academy and its students cannot maintain their composure in the presence of dangerous ideas or stubborn adversaries, it does not bode well for the future of academic research or democratic society. Research and democracy depend on clear-headed judgement and intellectual courage. People are often biased, prejudiced, and ignorant—that’s how we are. Anyone who promotes reason will face an uphill battle. If enlightened society has any hope, it won’t do to have intellectuals abandon discussion at the first sign of resistance.

It’s not surprising that some students view controversial speakers and their ideas as an existential threat. It is particularly difficult to engage an opponent as an intellectual when the outcome of the discussion isn’t merely a theory about how to view or treat others, but affects how others will view and treat you. This can have serious consequences for one’s personal rights and liberties, or even one’s safety and survival. Indeed, to engage only as an intellectual can threaten one’s own future.

However, at a university, we should regularly be challenged to deal with dangerous ideas and discoveries. Each and every intellectual will enter discussions that threaten, though usually only to a small degree, his or her own welfare. Students, given that they are still in the process of learning, will typically respond with trepidation or hostility to what offends or upsets them. Nonetheless, it’s the university’s responsibility to ensure that discussion occurs and that people remain physically safe.

It’s important for us, as intellectuals, to recognize and acknowledge the gravity of the situation. We must seek to become aware of the unintended consequences of our ideas and we should be considerate when we discuss them with others. We must resist the temptation to become contemptuous of discussion, whatever frustrations we encounter. When upper-level students and professors respond to mob-like behaviour by saying, “You were right to behave this way,” and, “Yes, this is what we’re teaching you,” it reflects poorly on their institution. De-platforming, the heckler’s veto, intimidation, and violence? That is not how we as intellectuals engage with speakers and ideas we don’t like, at least not while there are opportunities for critical discussion.

There is no better place than a university to talk about racism, fascism, white supremacy, or any dangerous idea. It’s a university administrator’s job to ensure that that remains true. Protecting students’ rights is extremely important, but doing so does not preclude critically discussing those rights, or even talking about modifying them. Part of the reason we have rights at all is that intellectuals like ourselves sought to critique customs and institutions and find better ones. That is precisely the sort of difficult critical investigation that must remain possible. If we, as intellectuals, cannot engage with ideas that disturb us, we will have surrendered them to the demagogues and the mob.

Some academics take the view that the intellectual battles for rights and tolerance have already been won; rehashing them is not worth the effort or pain. If anyone actually wishes to rejoin the fight, they should do so on the internet or in a private forum.

Perhaps these academics are unfamiliar with the complexion of internet discussion. Social media are not better places than universities to discuss civil liberties or dangerous ideas. Moreover, how can we say that these issues are settled when they clearly rage unresolved in the hearts and minds of a large segment of the general population? For whom are these issues settled? The majority of administrators and professors, perhaps? Some leftist students? They’re not settled for students who wish to invite to campus political firebrands or charlatans dressed as scholars. In any case, among academics themselves are many champions of the most dangerous and preposterous ideas.

Having settled the issues in their own minds, and recruited a handful of activists, are professors and administrators then content to abandon the education of their colleagues and students? Doing so will make differences irreconcilable. If we abandon discussion, we’re left with two possibilities: tolerance or violence, and tolerance is being stretched to its limits.

Some thinkers frame the problem of ideological divides in terms of the limits of reason. But why not frame it, instead, as a failure of pedagogy? What reason do we have to assume dogmatism is the cause of intransigence and ill feeling, rather than our failed attempts to reach our opponents? Yet if the problem has to do with teaching and discussing, rather than with striking against the limits of reason, we should consider that our own claim to well-founded truth is not certain. Perhaps our own dogmatism is the problem.

When a speaker is willing to promote her ideas, and you dismiss her with contempt, what are outsiders left to conclude? That the speaker really is incompetent, or that you are stonewalling to conceal the weakness of your own position?

Students entering university are trying to catch up to the current academic conversation. As part of their training, students are allowed some freedom of inquiry. Inside the classroom, professors control the discussion. However, outside the classroom, students will apply their training by engaging with whatever thinkers or ideas they find interesting. This is a taste of the academic freedom they will enjoy once their apprenticeship is complete. Professors must help students to engage profitably with speakers who don’t meet the standards of the academy. Students have that freedom anyway, and they are at most just a few years away from leaving the university, so educators might as well provide them with some guidance while they have the opportunity.

Ideas rejected by academics are often popular among demagogues and their audiences. This fact is reflected in the attitudes of students; their views have been shaped by the background culture and the current political climate, not by rigorous discussion. Academics have a responsibility to engage with ideas circulating in their culture and to raise the level of discussion—it is part of their contribution to society.

Moreover, intellectuals can often be mistaken, even long after we thought an issue had been settled. If the general population rejects the conclusions of the academy, it can be worthwhile to re-examine research in search of flaws and in light of new evidence and arguments.

The university should always strive to be the best place around for intellectual discussion. So long as there are people who want to speak on a given topic, the university should welcome discussion with open arms, particularly when it’s the students who crave the conversation. We might not have time for ill-conceived or outdated ideas in the classroom or in academic journals, but the same rules don’t apply to guest speakers students want to hear. Curious minds will seek truth from anyone willing to converse. It should never be the case that university people prefer that dangerous ideas be discussed in forums other than a university.