Battling Back against Campus Intolerance

Many Americans (and, most notably, students at our “elite” colleges) have gotten the idea that there is no reason to engage in civil discourse with people they disagree with. Once an individual is known to be in the wrong camp, he should be mercilessly attacked on social media, shouted down, and subjected to punishment by right-thinking authorities.

Fighting back against this intellectual tribalism is imperative, and Shannon Watkins writes about some good developments in her Martin Center article today.

Did you know that radical leftist Cornel West and conservative philosopher Robert George are friends and frequently hold public debates that involve questioning each other’s key beliefs? It’s true. Watkins writes,

The two academics — George a stalwart conservative and West a self-described “radical Democrat” — travel to college campuses across the country to publicly debate each other on their most closely held beliefs. The goal is to set an example of how civil discourse should look, in contrast to the current tendency of demonizing those who hold views opposed to one’s own.

That’s great. Our colleges often mouth the platitude that they “model diversity” (by insisting on quotas for faculty and students), but debates like those between George and West not only model real diversity, but also the way intelligent people should confront disagreement.

Following the disgusting mob attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College, George and West released a statement saying, “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage — especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held — even our most cherished and identity-forming — beliefs.”

Professor George, who has headed the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton for some 20 years, has earned widespread praise — so much so that late last year he was invited by the University of North Carolina administration to address the Board of Governors. He spoke on the means of promoting more civil dialogue on campus. That talk was very well received, but one UNC professor felt insulted and huffed that anyone at UNC could also have given it. I doubt it.

College leaders need to make intellectual civility and tolerance a key issue. We need to move from rowdy intolerance being fashionable, a signal of one’s supposed virtue, to conduct that nearly everyone looks askance at and leads to “What’s wrong with you?” comments.

Watkins concludes,

But George can only be an ambassador of civil discourse. There is still one crucial prerequisite for civility to exist as the law of the campuses: those with the ultimate authority must have the will — and the resolve — to make it so.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He holds a B.A. from Carroll College (Waukesha, Wis.) and a J.D. from ...

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