Posted by: Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr. | 12 April 2009

Why Has Disagreement Become So Disagreeable?

I was watching cable news earlier this week and saw a news crawl that flipped the switch on my internal sensors.

It seems that at Brown University, students were recently polled by the campus newspaper, and “67.2 percent of students support changing the name of Columbus Day, and 45.6 percent of undergraduates said they specifically favor changing the name to ‘Fall Weekend’.” I found the article in the online version of The Brown Daily Herald, and it reported this movement was in protest of “historical inaccuracies they believe the holiday celebrates” and in “recognition of the atrocities that [Columbus] committed.” The Brown faculty soon thereafter voted (not unanimously) to drop the Columbus Day name in favor of Fall Weekend.

My initial reaction was, “Eh… So what else would we expect on a mainstream university campus?” The collegiate tide has gone conspicuously Leftist the last 40 years. But even more than that, college students universally are at an age where issues tend to be magnified to monumental proportion and the call to student activism is de rigueur, regardless of where they are on the political/social/ideological spectrum. It’s the time in our lives when we were all tempted to feel as if we could (and should) change the world.

I remember the year that I was the (lone, token) Conservative columnist for The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at University of North Carolina. (To my knowledge, it was the only year they had such a column, and it was thanks entirely to an unusually fair-minded editorial policy established by Senior Editor Tommy Bello.) As I wrote my column each week, the temptation was there to view everything through a single prism, and to match the strident, intolerant tone which was used by my Liberal/Leftist counterparts at the paper, and which, frankly, seemed to be a hallmark of all political discourse at that time. (You know, late ’60’s / early ’70’s… Vietnam, campus moratoria, Watergate, “I am not a crook,” etc.)

It would only be years later that I would learn that intellectual humility is a virtue (e.g., the more you learn, the more you realize how much you really DON’T know). Only later did I see the value in (in fact, ideal nature of) the tales of politicians on diametrically opposite sides of issues, going into prolonged passionate debate on the floor of deliberation, equally committed to trying to win the day for their individual philosophy, only to leave the hall as colleagues who admired the intellect and argument of the other and who further valued each other as close friends and strong patriots.

Such virtue is seemingly lost (in fact often ridiculed) today, replaced in large part by anger, vituperation, and ad hominem hatred. And when did we lose the right to maintain that what we believe not only is true but also approximates “The Truth”? The Right calls their opponents names up to and including “treasonous” and “blame America first-ers” for their beliefs, and the Left claims that dissent from their social catechism is “bigoted” and “hateful.”

All of us maintain our belief set because, however profoundly or shallowly we have done so, we have come to that belief through the crucible of all of the authorities we acknowledge and logic we can muster. “I believe ‘X’ because I have examined all of the reasons and alternatives and arguments and potential outcomes, and ‘X’ comes closest to ‘The Truth’ that I have found.”

The relativistic Left claims that it is “diversity insensitive,” not to mention hubris run amok, to hold the above idea about beliefs. The absolutist Right not only allows for such belief, but philosophically demands it as long as it resides within the strictures of their worldview. The trouble is that both sides have an unfortunate tendency to first create their belief constructs, then verbally dig in their heels, and ultimately refuse to admit that anyone holding a differing view might be an honest and intellectual broker of ideas and facts, much less that there’s even a 1% chance that that person (Heaven forefend!) might be CORRECT! Lost is the intellectual humility that says, “I believe mightily and with all my heart and mind that ‘X’ is true, and I will argue it in the court of public opinion because I want ‘right’ to win the day. But, I will remain open to the certainty that I, as a fallible human being, have and do and will get things wrong – and that therefore others may have seen what I missed and be right.”

That brings me back to the articles I read in The Brown Daily Herald, and to my surprise at my own visceral reaction to a particular quote I found therein. They were the words of Reiko Koyama, a sophomore who was credited as being among the leaders of the movement to dump Columbus Day. The article explained (without giving the specific percentage) that there were students who had opposed the change, including a statistically significant greater number of men than women. Ms Koyama tossed off an explanation for the gender gap by saying that “women can tend to be more sympathetic and in tune with the weight of language” because “we as females realize the power of words.” Hmmm…

But the quote that metaphorically slapped my face was Ms Koyama’s perplexity at the fact that some students actually disagreed with her point of view. Her exact words, as reported by the newspaper, were: “I didn’t really see what the reasoning could be for keeping the name. It definitely exposes the need for increased awareness.

I sat and stewed over her words, and the undergirding attitude they belie, and grew more and more frustrated at the lack of intellectual humility we are increasingly seeing – not only from socially conscious college sophomores, but also in the larger political/social/intellectual arena. Did you catch the implied arrogance in her statement? Taken in its context, it would be possible to ascribe the following thought pattern to Ms Koyama: “The rightness of my position is so strong, I cannot even conceive of the possibility that I might have gotten it wrong, even in part. If that’s the case, then clearly all that is required is more knowledge, more awareness, more ‘like-me-ness’ for those who are now lost to come to the truth.” The movements on some campuses to quash the speech of opponents is typical of that attitude. “Our philosophy is so obviously right and on the side of history, justice, and destiny. Those who refuse to be enlightened enough to agree with us must be silenced because they stand in the way of history unfolding as it should, as all correct-thinking people already know.”

I don’t know Ms Koyama, and I frankly have no idea if I would or would not like her if we were introduced – or if she carries within her the arrogance her words imply. She seems clearly dedicated and eager and a hard worker, but her youthful exuberance has perhaps led her to more extreme positions than she might take 30 years from now. I simply do not know. Having things to praise her for (I most certainly did not agree with her goal, but I applaud her character in fighting for it), while also having an issue to try to get her to think about, I decided to write to her. I tried to speak to her using the rubrics and concepts with which she is obviously familiar. Here’s what I said.

Ms Koyama:
Congratulations on taking a strong philosophical point of view, establishing a goal for rectifying a perceived wrong, and working as hard as you did to see it to fruition. Such behavior is highly laudable, and I have no doubt it is a harbinger of the type of life you will continue to lead.
I can only say, however, that I hope you were misquoted in the article in today’s Brown Daily Herald. In it, you were quoted as saying this about those who voted against changing the name of the holiday: “I didn’t really see what the reasoning could be for keeping the name. It definitely exposes the need for increased awareness.”
In an age where we are finally coming to a systemic awareness of the value of diversity of (among other things) thought/ideas/opinions, I would hope you were not implying that holding an opinion other than yours on this issue was somehow aberrant. The quote implied that you believed that the only people who could possibly disagree with you were those who were ignorant (a synonym for “unaware”); that an opposing view which was informed, intelligent, and reasoned was impossible; and that (worst of all) if people would just try harder, learn more, and be as enlightened as the majority, they would inevitably agree with you.
Such an implication (if you or anyone intended to make it) would be arrogant, non-inclusive, and disrespectful of minority views — and not at all worthy of or to be expected from someone as sympathetic and in tune with fairness as you have shown yourself to be.
Again, congratulations on learning the power of principle-based hard work and individual initiative.
Best regards,
Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr.

I haven’t heard back from her yet. If I do, I’ll let you know what she says.

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