Open Debate When Words Have No Meaning

Or as we like to say, with apologies to Theodosius Dobzhansky, nothing in movement conservatism makes sense except in the light of creationism. I use the phrase ‘open debate’, as opposed to ‘free speech’, since there is very little good faith from those who seem upset about ‘no-platforming.’ Martin Longman, in an excellent piece about intellectual bubbles, explains (boldface mine):

…it’s inaccurate to say that debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. From my point of view, debate is something you engage in with a shared set of assumptions about the rules, and that includes what passes for a fact and what constitutes evidence. To be productive, there must be good faith from both parties, and that’s what broke down during the Reagan years. There’s really no point in debating Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter or Donald Trump because they don’t operate by these rules and they define bad faith. What the college students of today have internalized is that the conservative movement isn’t offering guest speakers on their campuses for the purpose of having a debate. They’re there to insult and create divisions. They’re there to question the entire intellectual process and the values that underpin academic discovery. What the youth don’t remember is a period of time when the right in this country could operate within the rules and when they were concerned to actually convince people of their views based on facts and evidence.

Personally, I think the comity and intellectual rigor of this bygone age is exaggerated in Brooks’s telling, but in my experience it did actually exist. It may have only existed in elite circles like Ivy League towns and the Acela corridor on the East Coast, but there was a brief period when we had debates in this country that were worth having.

The conservative movement put an end to that. And they keep pushing us further and further away from it. Rush Limbaugh becomes Fox News and Fox News becomes Breitbart. Reagan becomes Dubya and Dubya becomes Trump.

For college kids today, we’re asking them to pretend that provocateurs are intellectuals with some important ideas that will shake them out of their lazy assumptions and mental complacency. But that’s roughly like comparing Sean Hannity to Bill Moyer. These college speakers are coming to make a name for themselves by being rude, hateful, bigoted, and disrespectful. They seek praise, career advancement and book sales from an anti-intellectual movement. It’s a movement that made David Brooks who he is today, but he is only intermittently self-aware of this.

Put another way, consider intellectual fraud and elite racist Charles Murray. There are people who can speak intelligently about the genetic basis of IQ and behavior, both in the high- and low-heritability camps. They’re called population geneticists. Your local campus might even have a few! Were they to debate, students might learn some science! But Charles Murray is not the person to do this. He brings nothing to the table other than polemic and divisiveness (And that’s my job!). His words have no meaning, so why waste the university’s time and resources promoting charlatans and hate mongers?

And, yes, educational institutions need to make these decisions–it’s their job to do so, otherwise you end in up in a ridiculous place, typified by this satire (boldface mine):

I couldn’t agree more: If you think offensive speech shouldn’t be aired in certain contexts and venues, you don’t believe in free speech. Which is why it is incumbent on Weiss, and her bosses, to ask me to come to the offices of the New York Times and give a talk to the editors and columnists of the opinion page about how stupid they are.

It is absolutely necessary, for the sake of democratic ideals, that the staff attend my talk, and they must listen politely (and quietly) as I condescendingly dismiss their idiotic worldviews and personally insult them. They cannot yell at me or express indignation in any way. For them not to allow this to happen would be an alarming sign of the decline of liberalism in the West.

It’s not enough that I have the right to criticize Bari Weiss, James Bennet, and Bret Stephens here at the web publication I work for, or on Twitter, or really any other platform I have access to. The problem is that there is a platform I don’t have access to—the offices of the New York Times, specifically the opinion section—and, therefore, I have no way to personally and directly criticize the people I find objectionable. That is a clear-cut violation of the principle of open and lively democratic debate.

For example, I can call Bari Weiss a ridiculous hypocrite for posing as a champion of free speech on campus after spending her own time in college organizing a harassment campaign intended to deny or strip tenure from “pro-Palestinian” professors, but, absent that invitation, I have no way of making her listen to me say that, which has an obvious chilling effect. (Just ask my colleague Anna Merlan, who was shamefully silenced earlier this week, when Weiss didn’t respond to her tweet.)

I can criticize editorial page editor James Bennet as clearly not up to the task of running a vibrant and interesting op-ed section at a time when finding smart new voices has never been easier or more necessary, but I can’t also call him a pompous twit to his face, while he just has to sit there and take it, because it would be anti-speech of him to object.

How is that acceptable? How will the minds of the New York Times opinion section staff ever be expanded, how will they ever leave their ideological bubble, if they aren’t exposed to ideas that challenge them, like “all of you are charlatans”?

I’m a reasonable person. I am willing to compromise. If they don’t want to personally attend my talk, perhaps they can be allowed to skip it. But at the very least, someone at the Times needs to extend the invitation, and it needs to be well-publicized. The editors and writers of the opinion section must know that their colleagues chose to invite me to their place of work to insult them, as the people they work with sit in attendance at my talk, enjoying it a lot. The obvious contempt shown for the opinion page staff by their colleagues in inviting me in the first place would basically the most important part of the whole thing, speech-wise.

The kids are alright, but the adults, not so much when their words have no meaning.

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