In Defense of Discourse
I suppose it’d be odd to begin a defense of College Republicans inviting Ben Shapiro to campus with the fact that I don’t personally subscribe to his brand of politics. As a conservative member of YU College Republicans, I operate in much of the same philosophical space as Mr. Shapiro and yet I often disagree with the content of his conservatism and the way he goes about promoting it. I have a particular distaste for how Shapiro ridicules ideological opponents both onstage and in print, and it is still unclear to me why caricaturing your adversary is a more preferable method of political conversion than persuading them.
But inviting Shapiro to speak at YU wasn’t about indulging my or anyone else’s opinions about politics. It was about challenging them. While Shapiro could surely have been more restrained in his verbal disavowal of transgenderism, to name his most inflammatory gesture of the night, bringing him to campus was a necessary endeavor because it reminds every one of us that open discourse, however unsavory to our sensibilities it may sometimes become, is in dire need of reaffirmation in our time, and on our campus.
“If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell once wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This sentiment is not exactly Shapiro’s slogan — that “Facts don’t care about your feelings” — yet the two share a basic intellectual premise. Both argue, as does our College Republicans chapter on campus, that a precondition for a free and flourishing society is the right to speak your heart and mind and portray through words the world as you see it.
Shapiro’s comment last Monday evening that “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness” is undeniably a contested fact but reflects, nonetheless, his personal view of human nature as he understands it. This week, a cadre of YU faculty members (and President Richard Joel afterward) condemned in separate letters Shapiro’s claim, as well as the raucous applause it earned from a crowd of over seven hundred YU students. While President Joel’s statement was less unambiguous in its condemnation, the group of twenty-eight professors criticized the students’ reaction by “remind[ing]” them that the “Jewish tradition” repudiates such disparaging behavior.
When juxtaposed, this seemingly innocent appeal by our faculty to an accepted “Jewish tradition” among Yeshiva students mirrors a not-so-implicit groupthink threatening our collegiate peers, and the very notion of a liberal education, on campuses across the United States. Like our well-intentioned group of faculty members here at Yeshiva who unfairly presuppose a single interpretation of “Jewish tradition” that all YU students do or should subscribe to, liberal-progressives mistake their personal views for universal ones and, in doing so, assume that any opposition to their worldview is an impediment to progress and mutual understanding.
Take for example a college student’s belief in traditional religion, or in a particularist orientation of any kind. When subject to progressive sensitivities on most college campuses, both faith and particularism become ‘microagressive’ dogmas to be eliminated from the realm of acceptable discourse. If this sounds like hyperbole, I encourage you to read the recent words of Zoey Tur, the target of Shapiro’s remarks last Monday evening; to quote an article in the Forward discussing Tur’s response to Shapiro’s talk at YU: “Tur said she hopes that the students who applauded Shapiro last week at Yeshiva University would learn to “think for themselves” instead of relying on religious faith. “It’s time that we dispensed with our silly beliefs and magical beings that control our lives [emphasis added].””
I believe this statement perfectly captures the debate that we’re all not having about the Shapiro event, and about the state of our national and collegiate discourse more generally.
Tur’s claims that core religious beliefs held by YU students are “silly” and that our God is “magical” reflect the progressive presumption that a traditionalist worldview, undergirded so often by factors other than merely facts, is an illegitimate premise on which to construct an opinion about politics. Unsurprisingly, this presumption echoes the same one underlying Hillary Clinton’s comment during the presidential race that “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters were in a “basket of deplorables.” It also underlies the outcry of those on the Left after the election that Donald Trump’s supporters were — by merely voting for him — at once “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic,” to name one telling formulation.
When Shapiro repeats his fan-favorite slogan, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” however, he unthinkingly confirms this assumption held by the Left that a traditionalist foundation should not serve as a legitimate pole opposite scientism in the spectrum of acceptable discourse. By arguing that facts exclusively should form the context of informed debate, Shapiro concedes to his liberal-progressive opponents a subtle, insidious victory: that in a country where Church and State are indeed separate, facts, rather than faith or creed, should be the sole guideposts of our national life. This quiet consensus, one shared by liberal-progressives like Tur, by classical liberals like Shapiro, and by our forward-thinking faculty on campus, has contributed to a fundamental and widening schism between progressives and traditionalists on what ought to be the building blocks of dialogue itself.
In a sense, support for Donald Trump’s candidacy was driven by a profound counter-reaction — staged by a coalition of Heartland Americans, many of them faith-observers, many others not — to this implicit, elitist alliance between Liberals new and old. Heartland Americans believe, as do the mavericks on either coast daring enough to affirm their right to vote from the heart, that a tyrannous Thought Police has discredited their most cherished views and attitudes about the world.
Surging conservative support for political incorrectness, observable in Trump’s victory, the rise of Ben Shapiro, and the triumphant applause to the latter’s charged remarks in Lamport Auditorium, has been a redoubtable defiance of the suppressive groupthink that has replaced a once genuine marketplace of ideas in America. Ordinary people no longer feel like they can express themselves openly, and many profess an honest plight when they claim that they are “under assault” from the oratorical onslaught of campus and media progressives. This environment, both on our campuses and across our country, betrays progress of any kind.
And so, after all this, why then is freedom of speech so important, and why does the contest between faith and facts, between Torah U’Madda, play an important role in the defense of open discourse? The answer, I think, can be found in the humbler plea of Shapiro’s talk at YU, which watchers have elided in favor of his more controversial comments: That Americans, if nothing else, need to do a better job of being decent to one another.
On the surface this statement isn’t much (Shapiro himself did a cursory job of defining exactly what it means to be “decent”), but my interpretation of it was this: Left and Right in America need to respect, in the most foundational sense, the immaterial elements of each other’s creeds that fall beyond the realm of mere fact. For the Left, this means accepting oftentimes faith-informed opinions as legitimate sources of knowledge and wisdom; for the Right, this means accepting that feelings, regardless how little facts might care about them, are worthy of our consideration and our respect. For our presiding faculty and administration here at YU, this means reopening a serious debate about what exactly Jewish tradition is, how students at our university should relate its teachings to a largely secular world, and why students should even care about tradition in the first place. When disregarded with contempt or simply left uncultivated, faith and feeling fast-become agents of vice rather than of virtue, and if we aspire to a healthier, more open discourse, we must heed the better parts of Shapiro’s admonition.
Finally, by inviting Mr. Shapiro to campus, we endeavored to reignite a humane, though no less critical spirit among all participants in our university experience. Our invitation to Shapiro was predicated on the idea that neither an open society nor a liberal education can exist without a free marketplace of ideas, and, based on the event’s early reception, it seems that we are well on our way to rebuilding a formidable one on our campus. We welcome students, faculty, and administrators to join us in this much-needed enterprise, and hope that by seriously challenging others’ ideas and our own, we can begin to answer society’s most “serious, painful questions” and more.