We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.
New report documents a range of types of attacks on higher education worldwide, including killings, imprisonments, wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restrictions on the movements of students and scholars.
Let me tell you how I ended up on Jihad Watch. This is a tale of the new red scare wending its way across college campuses. More than an account of my own travails, this is an anatomy of how critical thought about Islam and Judaism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism is today monitored in the academy with the goal of chilling reflection.
In March, at the University of Rochester, I gave a lecture entitled “Judeophobia and Islamophobia” in which I sought to consider the links between Muslims and Jews in contemporary European and American discourse and put it into historical perspective. In attendance was an appointed watchdog for Campus Watch, A. J. Caschetta, a lecturer in English at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In May, he published his “report” of my talk on the website of the Middle East Forum. It was a pastiche of falsehoods, innuendos and quotes out of context, entirely obfuscating what I actually said. I was accused of maintaining that Islamophobia has replaced Judeophobia, an indefensible position given the rising tide of anti-Semitism globally. It was also alleged that I deny the history of Islamic Judeophobia historically and at present. These charges stem from the fact that I sought to consider the two forms of hatred in tandem. While it is demoralizing to suffer through this kind of defamation, the real harm is the way anti-anti-Semitic hit men like Caschetta feed hate speech.
I had a sense something had happened in the blogosphere when I began to receive anti-Islamic hate mail in my inbox, and requests for the lecture from as far away as Sydney, Australia. This happened because Campus Watch flies its flag under the auspices of the Middle East Forum, a well-financed initiative under the leadership of Daniel Pipes that monitors Middle East studies in the academy.
Campus Watch is part of a network of networks, including StandWithUs, AMCHAInitiative, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and most recently Canary Mission, linked to groups like Jihad Watch. Jihad Watch and these other fora send daily blasts to all those who sign up to receive them on their websites and use email and social media to share their message. Within this self-referential set of bubbles, each consumes the propaganda of their fellow warriors in what they describe as a war for hearts and minds. College campuses are thus key strategic territory in the battle since this is where young minds are shaped.
In her final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Hannah Arendt suggested that what linked Stalinism and Nazism was the reduction of history to ironclad laws, whether race or class. What they shared in common was the truth about the movement of history. Today the “clash of civilizations” has cemented as this new truth.
What I sought to accomplish in my lecture was a form of ideology critique. I did so by reflecting on a series of narratives that have emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders that have split off the ideology of the Koachi brothers and Coulibaly from the sociology of their marginalized experience as Muslims in France.
I insisted that such a split, whether by the right or the left, is untenable if we seek to understand such events. My example was Lassana Bathily, the Hyper Cacher worker of Malian Muslim background who saved Jews by hiding them in the freezer of the kosher market. His story short-circuits the narratives about an essentially radical Islam, as well as the story about how oppression leads people to terrorism as the weapon of the weak.
I went on to discuss the history of the concepts of anti-Semitism (which was coined in the 1870s, racializing the much longer history of anti-Jewish prejudice) and Islamophobia (which was birthed as a term only in this generation but whose history goes back to the Middle Ages).
Then I addressed the vexing question of whether anti-Semitism should be hyphenated. The minutia of the hyphen actually has major consequences in how we think about the relationship between Muslims and Jews over time, and how this has changed in the last century. Those scholars who refuse to hyphenate anti-Semitism insist that “antisemitism” only applies to Jews and has always only applied to Jews. They also tend to insist that antisemitism is a unique form of racism, wholly different from anti-black or anti-Muslim discrimination.
But in the 19th century, when the term “Semite” was defined in opposition to “Aryan,” this was carried out in scientific, literary and artistic works that not only racialized much earlier tropes of Jews, but also images of Arabs, Saracens, Turks and Muslims. The two groups were unified by their shared Semitic language family.
I referenced a set of historical examples of this long history: the Crusades, which gave rise to the first mass killings of Jews en route to liberating holy sites in Jerusalem held by Saracens; the Fourth Lateran Council (1225), which mandated marking not only Jewish but also Muslim clothing; the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted not only Jews but Moors; post-expulsion Europe, when 90 percent of Jews lived under the crescent of Islam; the depiction of Jews as Turks in Renaissance art, as in many paintings by Rembrandt; and I cited authors like writer Johann Gottfried von Herder, who called Jews the “Asiatics of Europe,” and Benjamin Disraeli, who said the Jews were an “Arabian tribe” and the Arabs “only Jews upon horseback.”
I then explained that the sometimes overlapping images of Jews and Muslims were definitively decoupled around the time that the construct “Judeo-Christian” made its historical appearance in the 1930s. “Judeo-Christian” was originally a formula used to appeal to Christians to aid Jews who were targeted for annihilation in Europe by the Nazis. It was effective because it stressed a shared lineage.
Following the Holocaust and with the creation of the state of Israel, Jews stressed their Judeo-Christian commonality, which over time was interpreted as the foundation of Western civilization, and later of American democracy and human rights. What made the decoupling definitive was that this was precisely the period when large swaths of the Islamic world began to demonize Jews in unprecedented ways, drawing upon the iconography of the European anti-Semitic arsenal, spurred by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This quick history is certainly not the whole story of either Judeophobia or Islamophobia -- their linkages and disconnects -- and only the briefest outline of what I addressed in my public lecture. But in talking about rising Judeophobia globally since 2000, I ended by explicitly critiquing the position that was then used as the title of Caschetta’s article: “Are Muslims the new Jews?” The entire point of what I discussed was to problematize such one-sided views.
The ear attuned only to ideology, as Arendt defined it, is tone-deaf to such deconstruction. The real jihadists don’t want to think critically and contextually. The narrative of the “clash of civilizations” explains everything to them. This is true of those warriors of the faith who seek who oppose the “Zionist-Crusader conspiracy” and restore the Caliphate just as much as for those crusaders who pull Judeophobic passages from the Quran and insist they meant the same thing in the eighth century as they have come to mean in the new millennium, as Caschetta did during the Q&A session.
Ideology, as Arendt suggested, is underpinned by an ahistorical belief in the truth of your understanding of the motor of history. Ideology critique is what some corners of the academy offer at its best. This is precisely why the new McCarthyism monitors its lecture halls with watchdogs. The Campus Watchers don’t want students to reevaluate and reframe the latest well-worn clichés. But not doing so stokes hate speech, and this can feed violence.
So what do I tell the members of my synagogue, fellow parents at the Jewish day school my kids attend, my colleagues in Jewish studies associations in America and Europe about why I ended up on Jihad Watch? I tell them the new McCarthyism has arrived.
Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities and professor of history at Rhodes College.
Association's annual meeting on academic freedom issues features a debate on whether Steven Salaita's rights were violated and consensus that Wisconsin politicians are undermining their university system.
The Japanese government gives $5 million each to Columbia, Georgetown and MIT for endowed professorships in contemporary Japanese politics. Gifts come as some worry about political science shifting away from area studies.