Learning to Argue with Yourself

Heterodox Academy’s ‘Open Mind’ conference. (Heterodox Academy )
Heterodox Academy’s inaugural Open Mind Conference was a productive day featuring plenty of disagreement.

New York — One of the more interesting moments at Heterodox Academy’s invite-only “Open Mind” conference on Friday occurred in the day’s third panel discussion. For all the heterodoxy that was implicitly promised, much of the day to that point had been characterized by, well, a kind of polite deference.

Such cordiality is probably to be expected in a setting like this one, where many people were meeting for the first time or perhaps circling back onto one another’s paths after months of quibbling occasionally on Twitter.

Someone had to get the arguments going. The third panel — consisting of City University of New York historian Angus Johnston, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, former Northwestern University medical-school professor Alice Dreger, and Brookings Institute senior fellow Shadi Hamid — was up to the task. As each composed statements and answered questions about “Big Questions and Heterodox Answers,” a few scowls and winces made their way into the room. At issue: Is there a free-speech crisis on college campuses today?

Johnston was largely sympathetic to contemporary student activism. He described the 1964 protests at University of California, Berkeley, when Jack Weinberg was arrested for violating a campus rule about participating in the political process. But when the police tried to escort Weinberg away, students surrounded the squad car to prevent it from moving — and even used it as a literal platform on which speakers stood.

“If the Berkeley free-speech movement happened today,” Johnston suggested, “it would be wildly unpopular with huge numbers of people, including, I’m going to say, a lot of people in this room.”

McWhorter went next, using his time to rail against “the social-justice warrior ideology,” which has, in his estimation, become “no different than strong Christian fundamentalism.” What might “coming to terms with racism” mean other than the social-justice equivalent of Judgment Day? These fundamentalists, according to McWhorter’s logic, are in perpetual search of a “heretic” to punish.

After McWhorter, Stanley — whose book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, comes out this September — told the audience of about 350 that “the far right has taken over the language of free speech.” In other words, for Stanley, the language of “crisis” is simply a tactic. He then took a shot at some of the conference’s distributed reading materials by saying that “John Stuart Mill (isn’t) Jesus Christ.”

The panelists all saw a problem regarding the state of speech and expression at American universities, but they couldn’t agree about what the problem was.

According to Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice and winner of the conference’s Courage Award after resigning from her post at Northwestern owing to censorship of her research by the university, students and faculty losing interest in “facts” is all the evidence we need that there is a crisis.

So while the panelists all saw a problem regarding the state of speech and expression at American universities, they couldn’t agree about what the problem was.

As with a good novel, the conflict added suspense to the discussion. What would be said next and by whom? Would panelists resort to interruptions and insults? Would audience members stomp out of the room or shout out accusations?

As it turned out, there were no tantrums or other theatrical displays, but the 75-minute discussion was far too short to reach much of a resolution. One was left to imagine what might have happened if these same panelists were to reconvene for a few more hours, or weeks, or months, or years. Would they be able to see that perhaps each of their examples revealed the same problem? Or perhaps work their way to another consensus? Or maybe continue to passionately disagree with one another?

Heterodox’s managing editor Musa al-Gharbi, who is also the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, told me that while the project will continue to critique what it sees as a lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses, the staff is aiming higher than that. Heterodox Academy wants to work with existing institutions to find solutions to the problem.

This rhetorical strategy — take the phrase “viewpoint diversity” — isn’t without its potential pitfalls. The phrase is not-so-subtly playing the game of identity politics, which could turn into just the latest way to assess groups and potentially dismiss people who aren’t in the correct “category.”

Even if the organization’s work ends up benefiting conservative academics (plenty of data shows that they are clearly in the extreme minority at most universities), how will the movement avoid being seen as an attempt to create an affirmative-action program for conservatives? Such a program would surely dredge up some resentment along the way.

But if the conversation between Johnson, McWhorter, Stanley, Dreger, and Hamid is any indication, the whole project might depend on whether the network of professors can build a how: a process for ideologically diverse academics to engage with one another, despite their disagreements. How can professors and students continue to listen to other people’s arguments while also feeling free to make their own?

Most of us aren’t very skilled at this kind of engagement, and for good reason. In a panel discussion later in the day with New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer, whose institution won the conference’s Institutional Excellence Award, conceded: “Embracing free expression is not a natural human condition.”

If it’s not exactly our natural state, then how do we find our way to it? Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), suggests one such direction: We have to learn to argue with ourselves.

He credits a season of depression between 2007 and 2008, and the subsequent time spent in cognitive behavior therapy that pulled him out of it, for the insight that a belief in “trigger warnings” and microaggressions sometimes encourages distorted thinking. A few of these distortions are “mind reading” (knowing what someone else is thinking), “fortune-telling” (being able to predict the future), and “catastrophizing” (telling yourself things are worse than they are); Lukianoff listed several other others in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an essay he published in The Atlantic in 2015 alongside Jonathan Haidt, the co-founder of Heterodox Academy. A book with the same title is set to release this September.

While free-speech disputes tend to have obvious political implications, Lukianoff didn’t seem alone in his conviction that participating in difficult conversations requires one to engage with one’s own psychology. You have to pay attention to how you feel to ensure you don’t take your emotions out on others.

Lukianoff was not alone in his conviction that participating in difficult conversations requires one to engage with one’s own psychology.

I suppose it’s no accident, then, that Lukianoff’s co-author is Haidt, a social psychologist and the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Heterodox Academy’s executive director, Debra Mashek, also comes from an academic background in psychology. This background was on display when Mashek spoke to the conference audience about “habits of hearts and mind.”

Mashek’s use of the word habit suggests that engaging across difference is a discipline, something we can practice — and get better at. I spoke with one conference participant — 22-year old Zachary Wood, a recent graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts and Heterodox Academy’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student Award-winner — who has begun to intentionally practice engaging with people whose ideas he dislikes.

With four other college classmates, Wood participated in an on-campus group called Uncomfortable Learning. The group invited, among others, Charles Murray to speak on campus. Wood told me he’s read Murray’s controversial 1994 book about race and IQ, The Bell Curve, three times. What concerns Wood about Murray’s work is that “there are serious implications for the slightest misunderstandings of [it].”

Wood assured me he’s a “liberal Democrat” and that his politics haven’t yet changed all that much from simply talking to ideological opponents. Even so, to talk with Wood was to hear an oscillation of claims and disclaimers, assertions and rebuttals. Despite his political leanings, he wanted to ensure that I knew he was for school choice. He doesn’t want speech shut down, he said, but he wants to understand why some people feel threatened by it. He has bylines at The Weekly Standard and The Nation, two publications that would usually be seen as ideological opposites.

To use Lukianoff’s language, Wood is arguing with himself as a precursor to learning how to talk with other people. At its best, this discipline of Wood’s will lead to the intellectual humility that will allow him to keep coming back into difficult discussions with just enough openness for learning and shifting to occur. And with his first book, Uncensored, scheduled for release this week, I was in no position to doubt Wood when he told me he intends to run for president someday.

It’s worth noting that not everyone is impressed with Wood. He told me he has been called a long list of names in college, including “traitor,” “Ben Carson” (Wood is black), and “white supremacist.” I suspect Wood will be strong enough to stand the ad hominem attacks; in his TED Talk he talked briefly of what it was like to grow up with a mother who is schizophrenic. There are, it turns out, experiences that are more difficult to endure than dinner with Charles Murray.

And if Wood, McWhorter, Johnston, Dreger, Stanley, Hamid, and Lukianoff are the caliber of thinkers that Heterodox Academy is attracting, perhaps there’s still life left in American democracy after all.


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