[Un]Civil Dialogue: How people have lost the ability to agreeably disagree

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Humans disagree about things. Pick any topic and you'll find people close at hand who have differing views about it. Personal experiences, priorities, and a thousand other variables shape each individual's opinions. Disagreement is good because it makes each of us reconsider what we think and why. It encourages us to examine the question in detail, reaffirming our position if it's right and modifying or changing it if a fair consideration shows that it's lacking.

A challenge to the art of disagreement is the attempted hijacking of the marketplace of ideas by people who insist not only that they're right but that everyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot. Every spring, college commencement speakers are dis-invited because some offended student group or other activists have put pressure on the administration, citing their outrage at the visitor's ideas. In 2015, Washington State briefly outlawed the use of “oppressive and hateful language” including words such as “illegal alien,” “male,” and “female” in certain class papers.

Last October, Yale lecturer and assistant residential college master Erika Christakis was viciously condemned by students after she posted an email gently questioning the school's guidelines about Halloween costumes. Administrators had cautioned against wearing items some students might find offensive (Indian feathers, turbans). Christakis wondered in her message whether this was an abridgment of free expression: “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It's not mine, I know that.” If someone was offended, her advice was to talk about it. Hundreds of students signed a letter condemning her and kept up a relentless barrage until she resigned in December.

Freedom to Learn

But if only non-controversial speakers were invited to commencement ceremonies, graduation audiences would never learn anything new, never have their assumptions tested, never be prodded into re-examining their positions. If a student at Washington State can't use “illegal alien” in a paper, not only is it a violation of his freedom of expression, it stifles constructive dialogue on a crucially important issue. If someone disagrees with Erika Christakis's point of view on Halloween costumes, they're welcome to state their case, but they have no right to vilify and silence her for sharing her views in the interest of fruitful discussion.

For all its wonders and benefits, the Internet has made it easier than ever for the loudest, rudest, most self-absorbed people to intimidate others and stifle the free exchange of ideas. This is an essential point of concern for the educational community, because without freedom of expression on the Internet and elsewhere, teaching and learning are impossible. A primary component of the educational process is permission to inquire and exchange ideas on all sides of an issue. If an idea is good, why is it good? If it's bad, why is it bad? Educated people—students and teachers alike–rightly test established thinking all the time. Good ideas, policies, and positions stand up to the challenge; those that don't deserve to be revisited or replaced.

Absent the freedom to examine and discuss controversial topics without limitation or fear of reprisal, we cannot move forward. There is no other way to winnow out the good and great ideas from the bad and destructive ones. Though there will always be differences of opinion, educators must lead the way in making sure freedom of speech is not abridged by threats to people's jobs, reputations, or personal safety from mobs and bullies hiding behind a screen of online anonymity.


Given a chance, unpopular ideas sometimes prove their critics to have been absolutely wrong. The unpopular becomes popular. The condemned upstart idea becomes the breakthrough. Unfortunately, professionals, academics, and other keepers of the flame are prone to close ranks and heap criticism on those who promote maverick ideas. The Internet has only made it easier to attack the credentials and credibility of a colleague who has stepped out of line. The tendency itself is as old as academia. Yet then and now, discussing and debating an issue with an open mind and a fair airing of all viewpoints is the only way to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Alfred Wegener was a German meteorologist fascinated with the question of how the earth was formed. At the turn of the twentieth century, scientists believed mountains and other surface features were created as the earth cooled and the outside layer of rock shrank around it. Wegener thought the continents had actually once been joined in a single giant mass and had somehow drifted into their current positions. He first proposed the continental drift theory in 1912, but it was 1922, when his book on the subject was translated into other languages, that scientists around the world went on the attack.

“Utter, damned rot!” was the reaction of one leading authority. Another critic sputtered, “If we are to believe Wegener's hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.” Into the 1950s, any scientist or academic who dared voice support for Wagner risked losing his reputation and his job. But guess what? The scientific elites did have to start all over again. During the years between the World Wars, mapping of the ocean floors revealed mid-ocean ridges that corresponded to the outlines of continents. Later studies proved that the ocean floor was in fact moving. Wegener was right, though he died on an expedition to Greenland before his position was vindicated. This meteorologist's crazy idea, renamed plate tectonics, is now universally accepted.

Tireless Defenders

Given a chance, unpopular ideas sometimes prove their critics to have been absolutely wrong.Of course, most issues are more a matter of viewpoint or perspective than scientific fact. But whatever the controversy, members of the educational community must be tireless defenders of open discussion. That's how bad ideas are exposed and how good ideas are tested and proven.

Shouting down the other side, blindly condemning its advocates, or refusing them a platform only raises suspicions about the rabble-rouser: if your idea is so great, why are you threatened by alternative views to the point of trying to censor them? That is the desperate act of someone who knows down deep that their position is indefensible; their boorish blast nothing but hot air.

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