Robert P. George holds the esteemed McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and is one of the most respected conservative intellectuals in the nation. Cornel West is currently Professor of the Practice of Public Policy at Harvard Divinity School, a self-proclaimed “radical liberal,” and a leading luminary of the left. If these two men followed the contemporary precedent set by politicians, celebrities, and media personalities, they’d be utilizing their platforms to score points for their respective parties, adding their own brand of academic infective to the public square. Instead, they’ve set their ideological differences aside to pen a joint statement extolling the virtues of academic inquiry, freedom of thought, and civil disagreement. Titled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” the statement opens with a striking exhortation: “[All] of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

Those of us who take exception to the current political climate need to lead by example, refusing to stoop to the level of so much of the defensive and bellicose speech that colors the cultural landscape.

Several Universities are making headlines for failing to do just that. The most recent spate of incidents began with the University of California, Berkley, where riots erupted following the visit of alt-right provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. Given that Milo was concluding an extensive university tour, it’s somewhat ironic that he encountered such fierce resistance at an institute that bills itself as the quintessential bastion of the American liberal tradition.

(An extended side note regarding Milo: Following a sadly typical career trajectory for media personalities, Milo has channeled his considerable intelligence into sensationalism and schlock, adopting an approach that has more in common with Marilyn Manson than journalism. The fact that there’s a lucrative market for this kind of behavior in reporting says a lot about the state of public discourse in the U.S. It’s also revealing to see just how far Milo had to go before people recognized the level of degeneracy in his message and began distancing themselves from his sensationalistic tirades. All that is to say: though the culprits behind the riots bear full responsibility for their actions, it’s hard to deny that Milo’s incendiary tactics played a deliberate part in fomenting the violence at Berkley. The ensuing controversy only served to further catapult his larger-than-life public profile; Milo got what he wanted.)

Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated incident. We can now add New York University and Middlebury College to the growing list of institutions making it abundantly clear that dissenting views on major issues like race, religion, politics, and sexuality are not welcome. Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College, recently invited Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute—a scholar with whom she has marked differences— to address students at her school. She was rewarded with whiplash and a neck brace for her efforts.

Reflecting on the violence that greeted an evening that was supposed to showcase the free exchange of ideas—a venerable tradition of democracy in general and universities in particular—Stanger sounds a lot like George and West: “But for us to engage with one another as fellow human beings — even on issues where we passionately disagree — we need reason, not just emotions. Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments.” Lest the foregoing observation become yet another pawn in some partisan culture warring agenda, Stanger goes on to paint the issue with a broader brush, “People from both sides of the aisle reject calm logic, eager to embrace the alternative news that supports their prejudices.”

Fortunately, there are signs that the tide is turning, even if they require a bit of squinting on our part. While many have pointed to the glaring hypocrisy of Princeton Theological Seminary rescinding the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to Timothy Keller—an honor for which Abraham Kuyper himself would no longer qualify—Keller still delivered the Kuyper Lecture on April 6. Admittedly, this may look like yet another setback for academic inquiry, freedom of thought, and civil disagreement. However, the fact that Princeton is willing to host a man whose views they believe to be not only misguided, but also deeply harmful, indicates that this institution is certainly willing to engage with dissenting views. It’s also a testament to Keller’s humility that he’s willing to press on in such tense circumstances. In a turnaround kind of way, I’d argue that the Keller/Princeton debacle is cause for celebration.

It’s true that the public examples of civil disagreement remain the exception rather than the rule, but the caliber of these recent advocates on both sides of the aisle says a lot about the shared desire to move forward. Though encouraging, these courageous efforts won’t go very far without practical support from the public. That is, these civic forerunners need our help.

If the state of public discourse is a shared responsibility, each one of us has a part to play in reversing the toxic trends that are compromising the free exchange of ideas in this country. But the real work of countering these trends is anything but glamorous. It starts in our homes, our online interactions, our workplaces, our churches, and our communities. In a very real sense, our conversations around the dinner table can be instrumental in recovering civil disagreement on a national scale. Here are some sobering questions to consider in this regard: Is the free exchange of ideas safe in your household? Can you endure opposing views on serious issues like race, politics, religion, and sexuality without losing your cool online, in the break room, in your Sunday school class? If not, I think you have to ask yourself whether you’re truly committed to recovering one of the more vital aspects of Democracy—namely, freedom of thought.

Understandably, the tenor of the recent election has clouded the prophetic witness of the church for many. Nevertheless, Christians in particular ought to emerge as the real leaders in the realm of civil disagreement. Those of us who take exception to the current political climate need to lead by example, refusing to stoop to the level of so much of the defensive and bellicose speech that colors the cultural landscape. For many of us, I suspect the greatest challenge will involve coming to terms on these matters with fellow Christians, not those outside the church.

In Colossians 4:6, Paul instructs us, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Many thinkers have drawn attention to the increasingly porous nature of our culture. Distinctions between class and social station, high and low (read commercial) art, public and private life are collapsing. The public nature of our speech is a key manifestation of this porousness. Whether we’re speaking on a podcast or posting on a social media site, we’re always being overheard by eavesdroppers. If we adapt Paul’s injunction for our 21-century context, we might say that we ought to gear our speech to the eavesdroppers.

Who are the eavesdroppers? They’re the people who sharply disagree with us; the men and women who just might be inclined to leave a passive-aggressive (or not so passive) comment on your status; the people who can get under your skin like no one else; the people who can utter the one word or phrase that’ll continue to nag you like a hornet buzzing around in your skull. They are the people we are called to love and respect, and the very ones who most need to see our gracious response. In these circumstances, may I suggest to you that we can ask for clarity, offer a response, and stand firm for our convictions if necessary. What we ought to avoid at all costs is getting even. Do we want to learn or do we just want to be heard?

Christians worship a triune God, a God in whom difference and unity are indivisible. When the eclectic group of men and women that comprises the church—the body of Christ—bands together for the sake of the gospel, they offer to the divided world a vision wherein difference is not a threat, but a gift.


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