I recently read a fascinating essay by historian Adam Nicolson on the origins of Western philosophy. While traveling by boat in the Mediterranean Sea, Nicolson noticed that Grecian port cities provided the setting in which philosophical thinking emerged and developed into its sophisticated form.
Beginning in about 650 B.C.E., Nicolson relates, “there was an emergence and a renaissance, as a constellation of independent harbor cities started to emerge in the eastern Aegean.” Above all, he continues, “the Greeks were not subject to vast instituted kingly and priestly (top-down) bureaucracies. A mental freedom coursed through their cities.” This exchange and development of ideas was enabled by contact with other cultures through the trade routes connecting the port cities of the Mediterranean and Black seas.
Inland life was dominated by farmer-warriors. These societies primarily came into contact with rivals and enemies. With battle and domination motivating their interactions, ideas advanced little and had no lasting philosophical dimension. Without the fertilization of engaging peaceably with others through trade and cultural exchanges, the inland communities were concerned only with power dynamics.
The problem of mental stagnation now threatens the advancement of thought in schools and universities in the U.S. The University of Georgia’s motto, “To teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” assumes that exploring ideas to enrich them is the purpose of education. But the current environment does not always support a stance of inquiry. If anything, it discourages the sort of stimulating interchanges afforded by those ancient Greek port cities.
Earlier this year, I attended a social event where I had a conversation with a self-described libertarian. He expressed a concern that campuses were becoming intolerant of unwelcome ideas. I agreed with his general premise, but we differed on who is shutting down whom. From his perspective, the manner in which politically conservative speakers were being shouted down by liberal students on campuses was shameful.
He was especially concerned about an event at Stanford University in which former Provost Condoleezza Rice, a current political science professor, was the subject of protests. The Stanford Students Against War and others opposed her appointment to direct the Hoover Institute because of her role as secretary of state during the Iraq War of the early 2000s. She had previously been the subject of protests over her scheduled commencement speech at Rutgers for the same reason, leading to her withdrawal from the program.
These events were not isolated. Liberal college students have often protested conservative speakers who have violated their sensibilities, often in hostile and doctrinaire ways.
My own examples of campus intolerance were quite different. I am concerned that the many national bans on critical race theory have shut down productive ways of talking about racism, which has plagued U.S. society since Colonial times and remains at large in society. Countless laws also prohibit giving favorable attention to the LGBTQ+ population and the books that present them in a positive light. Book banning is now a central means of suppressing advocacy for marginalized populations so that they get no traction in achieving their rights.
He and I had the opportunity to have a respectful conversation and open up a line of inquiry. He’s still a libertarian, and I’m still a Democrat. But we were able to, if not persuade one another to shift our thinking wholesale, take one another’s perspectives into account.
I would distinguish this sort of reasoned exchange from some of what happens in schools and on campuses. Spray-painting a swastika on a campus synagogue is not designed to inquire into the nature of things. If it’s a conversational turn, it invites no response except more hostility. Nor does book banning or shouting down speakers. Current events have exposed both antisemitic and anti-Muslim beliefs among students and faculty that are an extension of hateful battles originating from well before the current troubles. These disputes provide no opportunity to find a way beyond current thinking. They produce stasis and retrenchment, not development.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to think about the value of “civic discourse” in ways that speak to these issues. In much of the United States, and in schools and universities, people express positions without listening to or engaging with a different perspective. Instead, they try to outshout each other. Civil or civic discourse, in contrast, requires listening to and engaging with other points of view. It is not designed only to articulate a position and argue its merits. It serves to advance one’s own thinking by engaging with opposing views, often with regard to emotionally tumultuous issues.
This essay is less about the right to free speech, and more about the importance of listening to opposing views as a way to advance one’s own thinking, and as a consequence, to elevate the thinking of larger social groups. When schools and universities are grounded in dogma that prohibits competing views from engaging with one another, inquiry is replaced by entrenchment.
Civic discourse isn’t always easy, especially when emotions run high. But I think it’s the only way to get beyond the shouting and find ways to invigorate rather than thwart the inquiry that advances our thinking.