Dear Outraged College Student:
I just read your op-ed in the student newspaper. I can see from it that you are distressed. A speaker with whom you disagree has been invited to come give a talk at the school you attend. You feel it is an outrage against decency, justice, and diversity that this speaker was invited, and you are angry. Angry with the speaker, for espousing ideas you dislike, but also angry with the people who invited him, because they just might share some of those ideas—at the very least, by inviting him they show that they are insufficiently aware of just how offensive his views are. And you are angry with the people who do not share those awful ideas but who nonetheless are doing nothing to prevent the speaker from coming and speaking. Your college president and the rest of the administration have abandoned you to face ideas with which you disagree, and you feel alone and fearful.
The fact that you’re so angry right now means that my communication probably has little chance of convincing you that what you are doing is the antithesis of what an educated and mature young adult should be doing—or at least trying to do—in a situation like this. You should welcome the opportunity to be exposed to ideas with which you disagree. In interacting with them, you might change your mind, or you might strengthen your own convictions by defending them against others. Instead, you want to safeguard yourself from ever being exposed to such ideas.
There are a number of glaring contradictions in your position.
You claim to want a tolerant world, but you aim to go about creating it through the most rigorous intolerance of much with which you disagree. That’s a considerable logical problem. How do we get to the end of tolerance through the means of intolerance?
You say you believe everyone should endeavor to see things from the perspectives of others—this is the great benefit of diversity—and we should all work to get outside of our own heads in order to see that others have different views that might be just as good as or even better than our own. Yet you denigrate entire groups of people who are not like you—poor whites without college education are a particularly favored target for attack—and you uncritically elevate those who share your specific demographic profile, which is that of an upper-middle class student in an elite institution of higher education. You like to talk about unrecognized privilege, but you are much less adept at using that tool on yourself.
You are certain that the speaker with whom you disagree has written many terrible things. But you are unable to accurately quote him, and you instead rip things he’s written or said out of meaningful context, or you simply take the decontextualized quotes from some secondary source without even troubling to read the person you don’t like. You misconstrue and sometimes completely invert the meaning of his ideas to paint him as a dreadful human being.
You have sat in college classrooms for several years, apparently without having learned that a preliminary and essential requirement for criticism is understanding. This can only be judged a failure, on your part and on the part of those who claim to be your educators. For it is impossible to analyze the merits and demerits of a writer or thinker that one has not even bothered to read or listen to attentively. Your outrage is no substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.
I am well aware that the blame for this failure to have learned these skills is not yours alone. We now have droves of professors who refuse to teach such skills, either because they are themselves unacquainted with them or because they have decided that real education is not about this, but is rather about just the emotional moralizing that you have done in your op-ed. You have, to your own detriment, turned out just as some of your teachers wanted you to turn out.
It is not my intention to hurt your feelings or to ridicule you. I know though that this will be the easiest way for you to understand what’s going on here, especially given that you have been rewarded by negligent professors for choosing emotional reactions and exaggerated claims of psychological harm. You somehow suffer this harm when you are told things you do not want to believe, and you are therefore justified in rejecting reasoned and careful analysis and argument. But it is not so. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to contribute to the job that those with whom you have taken classes failed so miserably to do. And I’m trying to help you become the kind of person capable of living in an open and politically diverse society, where you will constantly run into ideas you don’t like once you are out of the sheltered world of college.
I bring up these unpleasant truths about your current position for your own good, but also for the good of the rest of us. We need you to become capable of emotionally and intellectually dealing with substantive disagreements about serious matters. Too many people incapable of this will doom our national project. The political experiment that is this country is only sustainable if people can behave themselves in a mature way in the face of disagreement and conflict. You must learn to accept that not everyone is going to agree with you about everything, and that in the face of such disagreement, we have to figure out a way to get along and proceed anyway.
Learn from this. You still have time. We are counting on you.
A Concerned Professor