• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


On the 'Clash of Ideas'

Shouldn't you have to have an idea to join the clash?

August 16, 2017

I’m something of an idealist when it comes to education and the potential for educational institutions to express and explore our most important collective values: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

I also consider myself a First Amendment guy, even something like an absolutist on that front in the metaphorical if not literal, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” Patrick Henry sense. I am all for conservative speakers appearing at college campuses, particularly at those campuses where college students feel they are in an overlooked minority.

And yet, I find myself unmoved by arguments from my side, the liberal side[1] that college campuses should be required to host speakers such as white supremacist Richard Spencer in the name of some kind of “principle.”[2]

The principle that is often invoked is universities should be interested in a “clash of ideas.” I agree that ideas clashing is an important part of higher education.

But in the case of Richard Spencer and his white supremacist ilk, what, exactly are the ideas that they present that would make for an interesting or edifying clash?

Is it their idea that “Jews will not replace us?” Or is it their belief in “blood and soil,” that a racially pure people should occupy the homeland, presumably the United States in this case, via what Spencer calls a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” (as though this is something that exists) so it may become a “White Ethno-State”?

Let’s assume, and I do, that public higher education institutions have a responsibility to support a “reasoned debate” as part of this clash of ideas.

Is such a thing possible in the case of Richard Spencer or his ilk?

Some argue we must combat these odious ideas with the superior force of reason, but I am having a hard time perceiving a reasoned response to those ideas that actually initiates a “clash.”

Sure, we could blah blah blah about American values of pluralism and all men being created equal blah blah blah, but this doesn’t mean our ideas a clashing because there is no rationality or morality underneath the white supremacist philosophy that we should give credence to as something worth debating. Are Jews human? Should homosexuals be put to death? Are those questions we should be clashing over?

The neo-Nazi white supremacists are the intellectual equivalent of the flat-Earth theory which is not welcome in the astronomy department to clash with team heliocentrism. Even if you counter Spencer with your most powerful, probative arguments, I promise you won’t move a single person off the white supremacist bench and into the realm of non-shitheads. The power of reason isn’t that powerful because there’s no amount of reason that is going to change those minds.

In fact, the opposite is more likely true because some portion of Spencer’s B.S. will find traction among the kind of disaffected turd he must’ve been at some point and now we’ve added someone new to team neo-Nazi shitbird.

Awesome. So glad we had that clash of ideas so we could be true to our principles.

The idea that liberals should embrace this kind of extreme “turn the other cheekism” and invite Spencer into the arena of respectable ideas simply because he claims to have some ideas is not well thought.

The more appropriate and I would argue, effective, response to someone like Richard Spencer is “You’re nuts. Get outta here with that Nazi shit.”

I recognize that in some cases the law may require institutions to host Richard Spencer, but this is a far cry from the attitudes I'm seeing among some who believe the door should be open because: principles.

Allowing Richard Spencer to stop by the old alma mater for some clash of ideas action indulges that which should instead be defeated.


[1] I understand why conservatives use this sort of dispute as a cudgel in the culture wars against their professorate antagonists. I disagree with them, but I understand the motive.

[2] Set aside the entirely justifiable worries about security and safety when Spencer’s neo-Nazi circus rolls into town. I’m imagining that isn’t actually a real concern.


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