On Replacing Open Debate With Silence

There are reasons, of course, behind the timid maxim to never discuss religion or politics at dinner parties. Discussions regarding fundamental moral issues, especially when there’s deep disagreement, have always been difficult and tend toward heartburn and poor digestion. Negotiating competing views of right and wrong, most particularly concerning values very dear to us, is perilous precisely because it involves figuring out how to do life together when there’s no consensus on what the normative terms and conditions of that life ought to be. While it has always been so, some fear such discussions have been made even more difficult by increasingly hostile efforts to not only stifle the free expression of others but to drive them from public conversation altogether.

Ignoring the timid maxim — albeit over lunch not dinner — Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, a program of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs examining the meaning and importance of religious liberty for democratic life, hosted a discussion concerning religion and public life; specifically the attempt to sever the two through assaults against free expression on college campuses. Against this trend, the Georgetown conversation would assert the value of persuasion over propaganda and of a commitment to the imposition of truth by no other means than by the strength of truth itself.

Grounding the conversation with an overview of the present context, moderator Timothy Shah, the Religious Freedom Project’s associate director, insisted:

We are forced to observe that much of the world is in pretty sorry shape as far as religious freedom is concerned. We think of the horrible religious persecution on the part of the Islamic State being perpetrated…against Yazidis, against Christians, against many Muslims in Syria and Iraq…; rising religious coercion and hostility against Muslims in Burma, China, and parts of Africa; against Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh; [and] against Jews in Europe.

But lest we arrogate the privilege of pointing our finger only outward, Shah was quick to bring the discouraging details closer to home. Referencing Pew Research Center data collections tracking government and social restrictions on religion all around the world, he pointed to a disturbing trend. In 2009, the Pew data showed such restrictions to be at low levels in the United States, considered widely across a spectrum of criteria. The latest data released in May however, show that government and social restrictions on religion in the US have risen considerably, resulting in a new rating of moderate, and placing the US somewhere in the middle range of the nearly 200 countries ranked in the report. As Shah notes, “for a country that traditionally prides itself on its respect for religious freedom…that has accorded priority to religious freedom in the very first words in the very first amendment to the Constitution” such a slide should be shocking.

And, indeed, it is shocking for men and women of good conscience. Illustrating this, a diverse panel addressed what it agreed were growing assaults on respect for the fundamental freedoms of religion and related freedoms of speech and expression. The conservative Evangelical Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; political pundit and columnist Kirsten Powers, a liberal Catholic; and California’s Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman, an atheist, represented a range of religious and political perspectives that nevertheless agree something has gone terribly wrong.

The discussion focused around Powers’ new book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, an examination of the multiplying attacks of her fellow liberals, particularly on college campuses, against those who disagree with them on any of a range of too-often polarizing issues. Powers explains, “Certain views just are off limits, you shouldn’t offend certain people.” While Silencing isn’t explicitly about restrictions on religion, she notes that the views deemed forbidden are those that tend to be held by religious people, typically involving same-sex marriage, abortion, and the like. Powers contends, “These views are treated as if they are actual attacks. When someone expresses one of these views, they have somehow created harm or committed an act of violence by expressing a view that other people don’t want to have to discuss on campus.” Citing example after example, Powers demonstrates how too many liberals have betrayed liberalism; no longer championing a vigorous welcoming of debate and diverse points of view but instead displaying an obdurate unwillingness to be made uncomfortable, offended, or conceptually challenged. In place of debate is a demand for silence, in place of persuasion there’s punishment: accusing interlocutors of bigotry and hate, reporting them to the authorities, and making them social outcasts.

On these points, Zuckerman asserted his agreement, “I work…in a liberal college, in a liberal nook in a liberal blue state, it doesn’t get any more liberal…My politics and my atheism are where they are and yet I strongly agree…that this is happening.” He noted the stark difference between the polite and warm reception the secular, socialist, same-sex marriage advocate like politician Bernie Saunders received when speaking at Liberty University versus the angry protests and retraction of speaking invitation that confronted conservative columnist George Will at Scripps University. Insisting that such attempts to silence others are a threat to the core of the liberalism, Zuckerman expressed his shame and anger at the behavior of his fellow academics, “They are wrong and it’s horrible. I totally agree that free speech and rigorous debate is the heart of democracy and a society that I would want to live in. I applaud Kirsten’s calling out of this trend.”

Continuing in agreement, Russell Moore offered a tentative explanation as to why such things are happening, suggesting that many Americans — on both the left and the right — are simply more invested in managing tribes than arguing with their interlocutors. “Imagine,” he offered:

if Martin Luther King had the motivation of simply tapping into his constituency in order to talk about how awful Ross Barnett and George Wallace are. He would have had a very different mode of discourse than what he had, which was to stand up and to speak prophetically against Jim Crow but also to speak persuasively to people who still were segregationists or caught in the middle on this in order to say here is a vision of America that can include you, that is a moral America, that is quite different from you experience right now.

Against this, Moore contended, we now live in a world in which argument is often merely a form of “tribal identification.” When one makes an argument, one is saying essentially, “I am affiliated with these people and not with these other people.” Such a disposition sets one on the dangerous trajectory of not being able to distinguish the dignity of a person from an argument with which one disagrees. When this inability — or unwillingness – to distinguish is coupled with power then persuasion can be replaced by power. Persuasion as a mode of discourse can be effectively abandoned.

None of this is, of course, to the good of a flourishing democracy. When college campuses become zones of intolerance, free society falters. The free society requires, and assumes, the critical role of morally formative institutions — such as our universities – to build and sustain in our young those habits necessary for the prospering of the free society itself. Among those habits is the ability to sustain real dialogue.

It must never be assumed that this is simply a collegiate problem. We indulge in fantasies if we believe that we can be one thing in college and then move on cleanly with the rest of our lives. Habits are habit forming — the dispositions we develop, indulge, and mature on campus have a strong likelihood of indelibly forming who we are. When we believe that we are entitled to never being disturbed or offended, to never having to countenance a contrary opinion, and when we manifest this in an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people, then our ability to contribute to the flourishing of liberalism — and liberty itself — is hamstrung.

The real horror happens when these hobbled zealots leave campus and venture forth into the wider culture. One need only look at how many on the left have drawn their knives on Germaine Greer to see how quickly those with power and an illiberal appetite for shutting down free expression will even turn on one of their own. If that is so, what kind of grace are they likely to give the rest? None at all — it is safe to assume. All the same, one outcome of both Powers’ book and the Religious Freedom Project discussion reported here is the certainty that one is supposed to enter the fray not avoid it, whatever the personal hazard.