ARLENE VIOLET - We must re-learn civil disagreement

ARLENE VIOLET - We must re-learn civil disagreement

“Identity politics is a safe place from thoughts rather than a safe place for thought.”

– Salman Rushdie

Bret Stephens, an op-ed columnist, published his recent lecture, "The Dying Art of Disagreement," in the Sept. 24 edition of The New York Times. I was struck by how much his sentiments matched my own. His thoughts were very much on my mind since a university where I am a trustee invited a speaker to campus who disagrees with the demonization of Christopher Columbus. Professor Carol Delaney supports an Indigenous Peoples Day but wants to retain Columbus Day as well. Her book, "Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem," portrays Columbus as a man truly engaged with the natives whom he met on his journey. He opposed slavery vehemently, contrary to popular practices in the 15th century where even the Pope countenanced enslavement of anyone who would not convert.

Indeed, while religiously motivated, Columbus also seemed to seek baptism to avoid having the indigenous people taken as slaves. His writings as well as those of his contemporaries document that he insisted on fair trade with the native peoples. Certainly, atrocities by some of his men occurred while he was on other voyages, but he condemned those actions and punished wrongdoers.

This perspective on Columbus flies in the face of his portrayal on many campuses. Indeed, as Stephens notes, a plurality of college students today – fully 44 percent – do not believe that the First Amendment protects so-called “hate speech,” which it does. Shockingly, 51 percent think it is acceptable for a student group to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. An astonishing 20 percent also agree that violence is acceptable to prevent a speaker from speaking.

Regrettably, these numbers show that they are picking up the wrong message from society. Adults are more intolerant than ever before with ideas that are contrary to their own. Disagreements about racial issues, bathroom policies, health care laws, and, of course the 45th president, metamorphoses into moral judgments against folks who adhere to a different position. In a study, fully 50 percent of Republicans would not want their children to marry a Democrat with one-third of Democrats returning the sentiment. As Stephens notes, Americans increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities.

If college students have closed minds, it is because their societal models do. Opposing views have become anathema. Yet "I disagree" are words that define our individuality, give us freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, energize our progress, make democracies real and give hope to the oppressed. Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela are examples of the latter. Where would our society be without Galileo and Darwin, in effect, saying “I disagree"? History is filled with minority views that turned out to be correct after all.

So, I am concerned as to how things turn out on campus for the speaker. More importantly, I see it as a litmus test as to how well the trustees, myself included, and the administration and faculty have done their jobs. Students and free men and women don’t need protection from discomforting ideas and unpopular arguments. More than ever, they need exposure to them so we might revivify the foundation of intelligent, democratic life.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.