An article in yesterday’s New York Times got me thinking. It described the latest round of something we see constantly these days: speakers (usually conservative) being shouted down or denied a platform altogether by (usually “progressive”) students or activists. The right does this too, though in their case it’s often more institutionalized than ad hoc. Examples include the expulsion this week of two Tennessee state representatives or the book bans and “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida.
The Times article describes a situation last month where Stuart Kyle Duncan, a conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was shouted down by students at Stanford Law School. Duncan is on record opposing marriage equality and bathroom access for transgender people. The Stanford incident and subsequent fallout are fairly complex, and for that, I refer you to the article. I want to address a broader point here.
Following the Stanford incident, Jenny S. Martinez, dean of the law school, released a statement in which she wrote, “Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them.” She said this idea “is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school.”
I agree and submit that the same applies to all of us, not just to law students. If we disagree with something, it is incumbent upon all of us to articulate a cogent argument against it. Shouting someone down or banning them altogether — canceling them — doesn’t make them or their ideas go away. We might congratulate ourselves for winning the battle, but we bring ourselves closer to losing the war. Canceling doesn’t win allies to our side because we haven’t explained coherently why the other person or idea is wrong. Debate isn’t always about swaying or defeating the opponent; sometimes, it’s about influencing the listeners.
Canceling is also self-defeating for another reason. In doing so, we are literally disempowering and disrespecting ourselves. Shouting slogans and epithets takes no real effort or thought. It requires no reason or logic. All that’s required is tapping into our base instincts, the very primeval motivations humanity has sought to rise above. We become no better than those we oppose, and maybe worse — because the speaker we’re shouting down is at least thinking and articulating.
If the problem was limited to just rudeness and shouting, that would be one thing. Too often it goes beyond.
There have recently been violent or provocative incidents perpetrated by both sides of the political spectrum.
All Sides Need to Chill
In New Zealand last month, anti-trans activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, aka Posie Parker, was assaulted on stage at a “Let Women Speak” rally in Auckland. A protester doused her in tomato juice. More seriously, a 70-year-old woman was punched in the face. Parker was unable to speak safely, and the event was ultimately canceled. Feelings understandably run high in the transgender debate these days, but these actions by people purportedly defending trans rights do nothing to advance their cause. Even if one might attribute these assaults to Antifa-like instigators, the broader LGBTQ+ rights movement should condemn them.
On the right, last month the white supremacist Proud Boys and neo-Nazis descended on a Drag Show Story Hour in Wadsworth, Ohio. With young children present, one protester appeared to brandish a weapon while others chanted “Sieg Heil!” Subsequent drag events in Chardon and Chesterland, Ohio were threatened when the Proud Boys promised to show up 100 strong and armed, and an area church hosting a Drag Show Story Hour was fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails. No one got hurt in these events, but inevitably someone is going to get shot or killed.
So what should we do when faced with racists like the Proud Boys? Or “progressives” like those in New Zealand? The answer isn’t terribly satisfying, perhaps, because there’s no quick fix. We just have to do the hard work.
First, let the “bad guys” speak, whoever it is that we so label.
Then, if we think they’re wrong, we have to challenge them directly in debate or counter them in articles and essays and community discussions. Even if persuading them feels hopeless, we might have success with those listening in the audience. In the process we sharpen our thinking and argumentative skills. It’s like working out at the gym, we grow stronger. And we gain recruits to our side or cause.
Doing these two things raises society to a higher level. Justice cannot be achieved if we lower ourselves to hatred, violence and inhumanity.
Title image is adapted from a work by August Meriwether in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons 1.0 Universal license.
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