Society / Justice and Law

Becoming a Lighthouse in a Sea of Addiction

Written by Mark Markuly, PhD

June 1, 2017

Fr. James Martin S.J. (center), STM dean Mark Markuly (left), Fr. Steve Sundborg

Dr. Mark Markuly, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, reflects on free speech, critical thinking and passionate debates within higher education and the world.

The United States is learning in this new century that we have a national problem with addictions. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones, explains how one such addictive behavior snuck up on us.  His book describes the convergence of independent forces that taken together explain America’s rampant heroin addiction problem.

We have many other addictive patterns in our culture, but a particularly disturbing addiction is the dependency many Americans have on silencing the voices and perspectives of those who think differently than they do.  More and more of us seem to want to live life on our terms.  Even if substantial numbers of people have different values or vision of a common life, we think it possible, fair, and even smart to silence anyone who substantially disagrees.  In the process, we are developing an intellectual blindness that prevents us from thinking critically about complicated issues and stunts our ability to catch the nuances in the arguments of others.  The ultimate cost for this kind of addiction, left unaddressed, is the loss of a democratic society.

Most people with a liberal or progressive orientation can cite examples of conservative religious and political perspectives seeking to silence the voices that disagree with them.  Indeed, liberals and progressives often tout open-mindedness as one of their primary differentiators.  The penchant to suppress the ideas of others is, however, not just a conservative thing.  It has become an equal opportunity addiction in the United States, and increasingly it can be observed in so-called progressive and liberal circles—most noticeably in higher education, the so-called bastion of free speech, critical thinking, and passionate debates about the kinds of ideas that will make the world a better place.

As an example, universities across the nation are in the midst of graduation exercises with its required commencement address.  For several years now, the choice of a commencement speaker has become a lightning rod on many campuses.  In the best of times, making such a pick has not been easy.  Harold Wilde, the president emeritus of North Central College in Illinois for more than 20 years, once summarized the challenge of finding the right commencement speaker by describing the process as the search for someone who is “a household name, has landed on the moon, won a Nobel Prize and a few NBA championships, was on the cover of last week’s People magazine…and will bring front-page publicity to the school…forever glorifying (the students’) graduation day.”  To all the other unrealistic expectations placed on this short speech, graduates, donors, or community members at many schools also demand to hear only speakers who think within the orbit of their value systems, and conceptual schemes for understanding the world.  

Consider the fall out that has occurred already in our 2017 commencement season when this expectation is not met.  When Vice-President Mike Pence gave an address recently at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony, about 150 students turned their backs on the podium and walked out of the assembly.  A more disruptive “protest action” occurred at Bethune-Cookman University, when Secretary of Education Betsy DaVos was booed through her speech, and the University’s president had to threaten to disband the gathering.  A few months ago, the University of California Berkeley pulled the plug on a lecture by the conservative gadfly, Ann Coulter, and DePaul University canceled a talk by conservative speaker Ben Shapiro.  But, these protests occur along all political lines.  In the winter, the University of California in San Diego announced that they had secured the Dalai Lama as a commencement speaker only to ignite protests by the Chinese students on campus.  When the University of Notre Dame awarded an honorary law degree to President Barack Obama in 2009, his presence was greeted by protesting and demonstrations at a level that dwarfs the Pence, DeVos, Dalai Lama, Coulter and Shapiro displays.

Protests over speakers on campuses across the United States have happened before, but free speech controversies –especially an intolerance for listening to thinkers with different orientations –have gained a new head of steam during the past decade.  In the chronic reaction to others’ ideas, many different arguments, with substantively unique nuances, are frequently getting lumped into simplistic categories of “fascist, alt-right” or “snowflake leftist.”  These portrayals are also being framed as a perennial battle between good and evil, almost like the Norse myth of endless battle between Kings Hedinn Hjarrandason and Högni, killing each other by day on the island of Hoy, only to have all of the slain soldiers rise from the dead overnight so they can fight and die again the next day. 

CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria reflected recently on protests on university campuses against more conservative thinkers saying something that might shock some of his more avid followers: “American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity,” the usually progressive-minded Zakaria said. “Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely,” he added, noting that many liberals like to think they are tolerant, but like many of their activist conservative counterparts, often are not.  Actually, Zakaria is only half right: the pressure on universities to disinvite comes from both the left and the right; it just depends upon your institution and where it is located.  To document  the number of protests initiated to get speakers disinvited from higher education graduation addresses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) began a “disinvitation list” for commencement speakers.

Higher education graduation ceremonies have become another data point in the study of our addictive habit of trying to isolate ourselves in cocoons of like-minded thinking.  With each “fix” from the narcotic of our own echo chamber, we are feeding the naïve expectation that we can magically have things our own way, and can effectively drive out the opposing thoughts and differing opinions of those with whom we disagree.

This retreat from free speech on American university campuses is not new; it has occurred off and on over a 100-year period.  Jonathan R. Cole addressed it last year in a well-read Atlantic article, entitled, “The Chilling Effect of Fear at America’s Colleges.”  In the essay Cole reflects on the increasing number of student demands to not hear things they find offensive.  “No great universities exist in the world without a deep institutional commitment to academic freedom, free inquiry, and free expression,” Cole says, but increasingly students are finding this kind of environment unacceptable.  The sociologist noted that surveys continue to show that students are increasingly supportive of restricting speech on campus, apparently seeking a free zone of non-offense.  Ironically—and perhaps surprisingly—the surveys show that “liberal” students are more likely to consider the First Amendment outdated. 

As people protest the invitation of speakers on the right and the left, I’m finding myself asking: what exactly are we afraid of?  The most destructive and dangerous political leaders in history did not take over their nations because they were willing to engage in passionate debate with their ideological rivals.  They did the opposite.  They refused to listen to the other person, and demonized and vilified the person to make sure no one else listened.  But, protecting universities as places of free speech poses serious challenges.  As Cole notes, the undergraduate students enrolled in colleges have matured in a world that has known the specter of terrorist attack, and a news and cinematic fear machine that has amplified just how unsafe the world is.

If we are discussing actual facts, we know that violence worldwide has been dropping at profound levels over the past few decades, and the human race may live in the most peaceful period of our species’ existence, as Stephen Pinker demonstrates in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  But, violence at the hands of the enraged and irrational does happen – as it just did on a MAX train in Portland, leaving two men dead, and two young girls probably emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.  In such cases, mega-data facts regarding violence are of little help.  Cole also identifies another important aspect of this complicated issue: the experience of many students of color, many of whom to university to experience a safe haven that will promote holistic health, often find it awash in practices of “prejudice, stereotyping, slurs and phobic statements,” Such dynamics, woven into the fabric of relationships and communications, convince students that no person outside their oppressed group can fully understand or appreciate their situation.

Based on the principles of democracy, Zakaria finds the uptick in protests on university campuses, against certain speakers with certain ideas, troubling.   He seems to imply that keeping campuses open to controversial discussions is the solution.  I think it is more complicated.  Yes, we do need to neutralize prejudiced and destructive ideologies by exposing the weaknesses in the ideas, logic, and motivations of those who propose them.  But, we need to do this in dialogue with people who disagree, not abstention, so we can model civil, honest exchanges that rise above polarization.  But, we also need to realize that a university must balance its commitment to critical thinking with the real experiences of its diverse student body.

We also need to realize that efforts to suppress voices on university campuses is yet another chapter in the culture war divisions that have ground American society’s ability to solve its problems to a screeching halt.  Since the 1980s, American culture has become increasingly polarized.  In 2008, Ronald Brownstein tried to track the converging forces leading to an increasingly hyperpartisanship in Congress.  His book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, documents this growing gulf.  A year later, Bill Bishop wrote, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, and documented the gradual process of Americans moving into neighborhoods and regions of same-thinking people.  Since the 1980s we have become, in effect, a clustered population that no longer has the capacity to listen to someone talking about things we don’t want to hear.  We are increasingly shaping lives that are absent of all voices different from our own.  And, because we don’t have to sharpen our ideas in the give and take of civil debate, we don’t test our assumptions  or learn to modify our understandings in light of a more complete view of our complicated world.  More importantly, we don’t have to learn how to disagree in a civil way to remain in relationships with people who have attitudes that annoy us.  In short, we can come to the conclusion that we can have things our way – no matter how unreasonable this expectation is to the situation. 

I don’t know how to create a dramatic movement to swim against this tide in our culture and world.  But, I do know that every time I sit down with another person with whom I disagree, and every time I read a book or article coming from a spiritual or political orientation different than my own, I do three things:  I look first to what I agree with, next I look for  what helps me understand the issue better and brings clarity to my own thinking; and finally I look for  what is dead wrong about person’s position.  Doing this  results in  making a friend from either across the aisle, across the generations, or across religious and racial divides.  This is the kind of transformation that will never come from a decree on high; it will, however,  come from below when  enough of us  are sick and tired of listening to people scream and yell over each other and when we have grown weary of one political party attempting to undo everything that the previous political party just accomplished.  We need more people who are sick of the lack of civility, tired of the paucity of common sense, and who insist on forging new ways to relate to each other around the differences of our ideas.

At Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009, he said his desire to create a new American culture that honored difference of opinion came about, in part, from the role-modeling of a faith leader -- the former Catholic leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.  Obama said Bernardin “stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads--unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, ‘You can't really get on with preaching the Gospel until you've touched hearts and minds.’”

If this nation can’t extricate itself from its inability to talk across difference, perhaps faith leaders can lead the way by example.  But, more of us will need to walk Bernardin’s talk.  Cole believes the University of Chicago worked out the best plan for negotiating the shoals of free speech in its 1967 Kalven Committee Report, which quotes the historian and former Chicago president, Hanna Holborn Gray: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is made to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

No argument here.  But, we’ll need to pledge ourselves to become lighthouses and crossroads that see every effort to silence voices as ultimately a failure that will undermine the very kind of world we hope to build with our ideas.