The Most Appalling Thing I've Read Lately

Note: the following short essay is about freedom of speech, not the morality of same-sex marriage.

Of all the things I've read in the news over the last few weeks ISIS sweeping across Iraq, Greece heading towards financial disaster, biker gangs slaughtering each other in Texas, California withering from drought, etc. this article has worried me the most.

The facts of the story aren't in dispute: a Marquette philosophy instructor named Cheryl Abbate was lecturing to her students about the application of philosophical texts to recent controversial political issues. Listing several such issues on the board, she included same-sex marriage and apparently having not read a newspaper for the last five years announced, "everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it." A student afterward informed her that not everyone "agrees on this." Abbate replied that any opposition to same-sex marriage is de facto homophobic, could offend any LGBT students in the class, and so such views wouldn't be aired. The Marquette professor who authors the above-linked blog came to the student's defense, decrying her response as politically motivated censorship, and was promptly suspended by the university for "harassment." Marquette apparently is trying to fire him.

Why does that worry me more than ISIS, financial turmoil, and the rest? It has to do with the disintegration of the key freedom that holds peaceful civilization together.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Why? Because a person who can't objectively examine a viewpoint that clashes with their own is intellectually crippled. If you can't consider that an idea you support might be wrong, you probably won't be able to catch your own mistakes until the consequences smack you in the face and even then you might not be able to connect cause and effect. Worse, once people with such narrow vision get in a position of political power, they usually discourage discussion of competing ideas when formulating policy and that's a recipe for disaster.

Some practitioners of this kind of "education" defend it on the grounds that not all ideas deserve equal time. "Should we let flat-earth proponents have a day in the classroom to teach their theory?" No, obviously not. Some ideas really have been truly and thoroughly discredited by a mountain of empirical evidence gathered over decades or centuries--scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they're wrong. Others that can't be settled so quickly through scientific observation — notably sociological or cultural issues — have simply gone through the debate, developed a very large body of relevant case law, and been so thoroughly accepted by the majority of society for so long that they've become an integral part of the culture. Anyone who thinks we should, for example, reopen the debate on whether women should have the right to vote will earn himself a lot of strange looks. But notice the false dichotomy presented by many people who want to squelch debate on ideas that aren't culturally or scientifically settled  the implication that allowing any contrary idea (and the idea they suggest is always an extreme one, to the point of being a straw man) into the debate means we would have to allow debate on every contrary idea. As with all false dichotomies, it's never that simple, and anyone who says it is probably has an agenda. 

In fact, what's particularly disturbing about that false dichotomy is that a key part of a good education is teaching students how to sift through competing ideas and determine which are worthy of consideration and which aren't. Just learning how to narrow the field of arguments, theories, hypotheses, etc is a core skill for any scientist or researcher. But such sifting should be based on evidence, for and against. Telling students that ideas can be rejected just because they might offend personal sensibilities? That isn't education by any standard.

I first saw that lesson taught in dramatic fashion during my first semester at Brigham Young University. For my first General Education science elective, I enrolled in Biology 100 and was promptly rocked to find the class met in a standing-room only 1,000-seat amphitheater (my high school graduating class only had 100 kids in it). Moreover, Biology is not my best subject and I pulled a C in the course.

I'm grateful to this day that I took that class because the professor taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, and it had nothing to do with frog livers. In fact, it's the only lecture from that entire semester that I still remember.

The professor spent the hour teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution (you can already see where this is going) and I saw a number of students spend the entire lecture flipping through their Bibles. When the professor finished his presentation and opened up the Q&A period, one student leaped from his chair and walked quickly to one of microphones, scriptures in hand. Apparently, this poor, deluded freshman imagined that his Ph.D. professor had never encountered the religious tension between the Book of Genesis and Darwin's theory — despite having tenure at BYU of all places — and was going to educate him. The teenager opened the scriptures and, in an outraged tone, said, "But professor, it says here in Genesis—"

That's as far as he got.

I don't remember the professor's precise words, so I'll paraphrase as best as my memory will allow.

"Stop right there," the professor said, cutting the student off. "I know exactly what you're going to say. I'm a Mormon. I know the scriptures and the Gospel, and you're not the first person to raise that particular objection in my class. But you know what? The Theory of Evolution is the prevailing scientific theory of Biology and that will continue unless and until a theory that better fits the empirical evidence rises to replace it. Now, some of the students here want to go to medical school, some will become professional biologists, etc. Whether they personally want to believe in Evolution or not is their business, but if they want to work in such fields, they have to understand the theory because their colleagues will base their research on it. So I'm going to teach the theory. There's a time and a place to debate religion vs science, but my class isn't it. Save it for your religion classes. And, by the way, if I ask you to explain the Theory of Evolution on the final exam, which I will, and you give me an essay explaining how the Bible disproves it, you'll fail the course."

End of discussion. The professor actually was pretty polite about it, but his message was clear. Students who couldn't hold the Theory of Evolution in their heads alongside Genesis were in trouble.

On the surface, it might look like that Biology professor did exactly what Ms. Abbate did shut down discussion of a dissenting viewpoint. In reality, he did the opposite. 95%+ of BYU's student body is Mormon. On that campus, the belief that there is a God who created humanity isn't a remotely controversial idea. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was the idea more likely to stir controversy (not so much these days, almost 30 years later), but the professor was going to teach it and wasn't terribly worried that he might offend anyone in doing it. Why? Because he knew that if students with strong religious backgrounds couldn't learn to be objective about potentially clashing secular ideas, they would never be able to work professionally in an analytical field.

That was the most important lesson I learned my freshman year, and possibly during my undergraduate education. I wish I could remember that professor's name. I owe a lot of my professional success to him.

That's what worries me about Marquette's actions. A university that silences students and teachers to keep controversial subjects from being discussed so as to "not offend" is teaching students that emotion counts for more than reason.

I'm not advocating offending people. Intentionally offending others is reprehensible behavior. But there's a difference between the presentation of an idea and the idea itself. We can and should denounce people who present ideas in ways intended to shock and offend. But teaching students that they can and should shut down anyone trying to discuss an idea they simply find uncomfortable? They're doing a severe disservice to those students and to society; and if this becomes prevalent in our universities, colleges, and high schools, our civilization will be in real trouble. Why?

Democracy, with its many variants, is the only modern political system in which people with diverse viewpoints govern themselves non-violently through rational argument and discussion. In democracy, debate replaces violence. Take away debate and the free exchange of ideas, and what's left? A group of people who impose their political will on another group without considering, maybe without even knowing, the views of the second group. Governance without consideration for the views of the governed creates an environment in which people feel disenfranchised; and people who feel they have no way to express contrary viewpoints start looking for other ways to make the politically deaf listen to them. Nature abhors a vacuum. If debate no longer replaces violence, we risk having violence come rushing back in to fill the void. Go down that road far enough, and you find civil wars and revolutions and insurgencies waiting at the end. Hence the famous Clausewitzian dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." When debate fails to resolve an issue, resolving it through force becomes a temptation.

We're fortunate that Western civilization has a (relatively young) tradition of non-violent civil disobedience to perceived political injustice, but history shows that violent resistance is always lurking at the edge of human affairs. Just ask the Founding Fathers. That's why they enshrined the Freedom of Speech in the First Amendment. They knew that tyranny and free speech are mutually exclusive, and so did not want free speech curtailed, no matter how well-intentioned the motives for doing so. 

That's why Marquette's actions should be denounced. If we want to strengthen society and solve pressing social and cultural problems, we need more educated people — lots more — who can debate potentially offensive ideas without becoming offended, not less. We need citizens who look at someone who disagrees with their politics as a person to be persuaded, not a person to be silenced. In backing Ms. Abbote and trying to fire the professor who defended the student, it looks to me like Marquette has decided that it's not interested in helping produce that kind of citizen.