How is it that we’ve become a society where we can no longer agree to disagree? How is it that when we start a discussion it devolves into World War III with a take no prisoners attitude?
We seem to have forgotten the rules of civility that we were taught as children and we go for the jugular right away.
With the advent and proliferation of online newspapers that allow readers to comment afterwards, we’re seeing people who seem to think that once they sit in front of their computers that the rules of civility no longer apply. If they even start their comments writing about the news article or an earlier comment, it quickly goes downhill where the comments become personal. The comments are no longer about the issues—they’re about the people who wrote the articles or comments.
With social media sites like Facebook being used to discuss issues, it seems to be open season to attack other people. Attacking an idea or an opinion is one thing but when did it become acceptable to turn on other people? It’s as if people are embracing the posture that rather than attacking the message they prefer to attack the messenger. Does that make these people feel bigger, more important or righteous?
We’re certainly seeing this here in Richmond where there is a steep divide between the people on different sides of the issues. Everything seems to be a wedge issue or a litmus test where the people on one side of an issue are perceived as being good and virtuous and the people on the other side have gone over to the dark side of the Force. There is no longer any middle ground. People are no longer allowed to simply disagree. The art of the compromise has been forgotten.
How can we expect to move forward and collectively fix our community’s problems when we can’t even have a discussion about them without striking out to destroy those who might disagree with us?
Since this is graduation season we’re reading about a lot of commencement speakers who are declining their commitments to speak because of vocal and even violent opposition to them even being allowed to speak. Sometimes they decline voluntarily and sometimes the invitations are withdraw.
Just in the past couple of weeks former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revoked her commitment to speak at Rutgers because some grads were so vocal in opposition to someone speaking who did not think like they did.
Just a few days ago retired UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau rescinded his acceptance to speak at Haverford College after students came up with a list of demands that he acceded to before they would allow him to speak.
At Smith College last weekend Christine Lagarde, the first female leader of the IMF withdrew from her commitment because of students who took exception to the positions of the IMF.
In what community or within what group does everyone think the same way and are of one mind? And do we really want to stifle free speech? Is that the society that we want to live in? Even as I type these words I’m seeing scenes from 1984 where there is a collective mindset.
This is not the world I want to live in.
Juts a few days back Stephen Carter—a columnist for Bloomberg View—wrote the article posted below which addresses college commencement speakers but it also speaks to the unwillingness of people in many communities to accept freedom of speech in the form of differing opinions and views on the important issue before us today.
DEAR CLASS OF 2014: THANK YOU FOR NOT DISINVITING ME
May 15, 2014
Members of the Class of 2014, I salute you. My warmest wishes on the occasion of your graduation from this fine institution.
And, before I go any further, I would like to express my personal thanks to all of you for not rescinding my invitation. I know that matters were dicey for a while, given that I have held and defended actual positions on politically contested issues. Now and then I’ve strayed from the party line. And if the demonstrators would quiet down for a moment, I’d like to offer an abject apology for any way in which I have offended against the increasingly narrow and often obscure values of the academy.
In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired—and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity.
Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that. There’s no need for the ritual give and take of serious argument when, in your early 20s, you already know the answers to all questions. How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict. There are corners of the globe where violence and war and abject oppression still dominate. Capitalism is concentrating wealth in fewer hands but, in the developing world, lifting tens of millions out of poverty. Traditional societies are caught in an increasingly desperate struggle between the perils of fundamentalism on the one side and the perils of modernism on the other.
Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides.
Besides, you will face more important problems. Once you depart the campus, the world will make unjust demands on you. You will have to work for a living. You will have to put up with people whose views you despise. Fortunately, as long as you don’t waste precious time reflecting in a serious way on the issues of the day—or, worse, contemplating the possibility that you might be mistaken on a question or two—you should have plenty of hours for Twitter and Google Hangout and the nonstop party that every truly just society was meant to be.
Indeed, a lack of reflection can be of enormous assistance to an act of protest. Consider the contretemps at Smith College over the invitation extended to Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Money Fund, who has decided not to attend. Were one to think seriously about the implications of the anti-IMF argument—and, please, ladies and gentlemen, do nothing of the kind!—one would also presumably have to bar from the stage Lagarde’s fellow conspirators, particularly leaders of the IMF’s biggest financial supporter, the United States of America. (The Tea Party, happily, opposes the IMF. Perhaps one of its leaders might be invited next year.)
Then there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was—to take a name at random—then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.
The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students—and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role—are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.
Now, before I close, I would like to address those members of the Class of 2014 who might think that it’s wrong to ban speakers whose views you reject. Your reactionary belief in tolerance and open-mindedness is truly distressing. I beg you to remember that every controversial question has only one answer. You have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions you dislike.
And now, graduates, before things go too far—before you run the risk of being thought to be on the road to becoming responsible adults—please, rise to your feet, and, speaking with one voice, shout me down!
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University, where he teaches courses on contracts, professional responsibility, ethics in literature, intellectual property, and the law and ethics of war. Carter is the author of 12 books, including the novels “Jericho’s Fall,” “Palace Council” and “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” His nonfiction titles include “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” “The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process” and “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a law degree from Yale. He was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He grew up in New York, Washington, and Ithaca, New York, and now lives in Connecticut.