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The importance of disagreement

| Wednesday, January 24, 2018

For all of the polarizing narratives that dominate the public sphere in today’s America, there seems to be very little actual conversation between sides. This past weekend’s government shutdown is a perfect example — rather than actually sit down at the table find some sort of common ground, both Republicans and Democrats have stubbornly refused to budge and allow our nation’s federal employees and military to suffer as a result.

And while it may be a legislative tool to refuse to vote on something in order to leverage something else, it does say things about our society when our political system resorts to these tactics in order to “win” results. Principles certainly have value, but there is a hierarchy. Of course the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy is an important issue, and one that neither side should take lightly. But the program isn’t set to expire until March 5, more than a month away. Instead, the Republicans, who want border security, and the Democrats, who want DACA resolved, have so far refused to compromise at all, leading to the position our country finds itself in.

But the reality is neither side will get what they want unless some sort of agreement is reached. It’s part of a much bigger problem in our culture in that, unfortunately, disagreement has no ability to be reconciled.

In September, I read a fantastic opinion in the New York Times titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” In it, Bret Stephens points out the disturbing fact that while disagreement is not only important within a free society but even an essential facet of it, in today’s America “we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”

When we have people on one side being labeled as “racists” or “neo-nazis” for supporting Trump, and “communists” for siding with Bernie Sanders, the issues are far deeper than just a simple difference in opinion.

When we have an epidemic of “Fake News” and agencies giving two different sets of facts, each presented as the truth, we have a problem.

When we have universities being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in security to simply put on an event at which a controversial speaker is invited to speak, we have a crisis.

So what’s the answer? I think we all have to be open to discussion.

In his article, Stephens discusses how his education in the Great Books at the University of Chicago not only allowed him to delve deeply into issues of the human condition with authors that debated and disagreed with one another, but also gave him the ability to understand opposing arguments and have real discussions and debates with his fellow classmates. Coming from my background in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS), I couldn’t agree more.

When it comes to political views, students in PLS occupy the whole spectrum. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a discussion. On the contrary, some of the most vibrant and controversial discussions I’ve had have been in PLS classes or with other PLS students. I’m a regular contributor to Res Publica, a political discussion group founded by several PLS friends of mine with the very intention to combat this serious problem. It’s been hugely successful.

When it comes down to it, I think the biggest difference between what I’ve experienced and what we see in today’s crisis is ultimately a lack of respect — stemming principally from identity politics. The fact that 44 percent of college students think “hate speech” isn’t protected by the First Amendment points directly at this fact.

On both sides, people now judge arguments largely from a position of identity, not from the intellectual case being made. This lends itself towards a shutting down of discussion, rather than the ever-important promulgation of debate. Many times, it’s not the argument that is judged, instead it’s the person giving it. And with all the labeling of controversial speakers as “immoral” or “evil” by the respective opposing side, good debate is stifled.

In the end, we are fostering a culture of those “who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen,” as Stephens puts so eloquently.

Enough is enough. It’s time to start listening.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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