Conservatives across America are cheering University of Chicago dean John Ellison for his recent letter informing incoming students that they may have to suffer the indignity of confronting people they don’t agree with and ideas that make them uncomfortable.
Needless to say, the position was immediately denounced by zealots who sincerely believe that the only way to preserve intellectual freedom is by muzzling any and every utterance that they find threatening to their own feelings and worldview.
The sad reality is that there are racists and sexists in the world, just as some people are intellectually dishonest and plain rude. (Some of them are running for president of the United States.)
But people such as these will not go away or change their stripes because others attempt to silence them. The only effect of censorship is to drive people into more insulated camps and encourage their withdrawal into more extreme factions where groupthink reigns and all meaningful exchange of ideas is prohibited.
The freedom to disagree and engage in civil discourse is what keeps a society healthy, and a college campus is where intellectual and moral maturity are supposed to take root and blossom. It’s a challenging process; but there’s a reason for the expression growing pains.
When such distinguished figures at Condoleezza Rice and George Will — not to mention Binyamin Netanyahu — are disinvited on account of pressure from students who would rather hide from opposing viewpoints than defend their own positions, it is obvious that American universities are no longer serving their students or society at large.
A free society depends upon the ability to differentiate between legitimate opinions that differ from our own and pathological ideologies corrosive to moral values and human dignity. As such, we have to allow those who embrace the latter free voice so that we can then refute them from a position of reason, not opposing ideology.
In his book Civility, Stephen L. Carter makes the critical point that civil behavior — which is the foundation of civilization — requires a sensitivity to a code of personal conduct that goes beyond the letter of the law. By attempting to legislate free speech and codify free thought, we forfeit the essential value that human culture is built upon a commitment to seek and to do good, not merely to abstain from what is forbidden.
With courage and clarity of thought, we can engage those with whom we disagree in a way that is both civil and respectful. By doing so, we can promote mutual respect and understanding, while effectively marginalizing those who reject civility without needing to stifle all dissenting opinions.
This is not merely a prescription for American college campuses. It would serve to foster a much needed atmosphere of unity and fellowship in all our communities, at home and around the world.