Last week, professor Charles Murray, a right-leaning social scientist, was invited onto the campus of Middlebury College in Vermont. As has been frequently the case at many universities over the last few years, student-led protests erupted in disapproval of Murray’s presence at the school. Though protests such as this are hardly unique, the Middlebury protest did something that most campus demonstrations do not do: It turned violent. Protesters attacked Murray and another professor who was attempting to shield him, even sending the latter to the emergency room.
The outrage and disgust that many of us feel at acts of physical violence is compounded in this instance by location. Regardless of whether one is more sympathetic to the ideas of professor Murray or of the students protesting, there is something fundamentally broken about violent suppression of ideas at a university. Even if the idea of a university’s being a free-flowing, ideologically inclusive space is a romantic one—a fact that conservatives have been reminded of many times over the years—the picture of an angry student mob shouting down and then physically assaulting a lecturer is one that seems to undermine the very essence of higher education. What is the purpose of college if not to train students how to think critically and carefully, rather than merely passionately? If mutual dialogue and debate are not possible at university, where are they possible?
The Intellectual Fragility of the American Academy
The violence at Middlebury brings to a sad crescendo many troubling trends in American higher ed. Whether it is the authoritarian ethos of student protests that end careers, or the coddling of students in an intellectually fragile “trigger warning” culture, all signs point to a serious crisis for our colleges. Yet these discouraging trends for American universities are not isolated and random, nor do they end on the borders of college campuses. Charles Murray’s violent ejection from Middlebury is symbolic of an increasing dysfunction in the American public square: Our culture is losing the ability to disagree.
Of course, ideological polarization has always been real, as real as the Alien and Sedition acts signed by John Adams and as real as Burr and Hamilton’s fatal duel. There’s no point in pretending that previous generations were somehow collectively more magnanimous than ours. But even though what Jonathan Haidt has deemed “the righteous mind” is not new, its effects are being exacerbated in our age of rapid atomization and fragmentation. Recent books, such as Yuval Levin’s influential The Fractured Republic and Charles Murray’s own Coming Apart make explicit reference to the challenges that socioeconomic change and the aftermath of culture war pose to liberal pluralism. While the violence at Middlebury is certainly appalling, to anyone who has been keeping a cursory glance at our fraying public square, it cannot be surprising.
So much of our cultural conversations are laden with apocalyptic moral language. As one friend pointed out, it seems as if the words “I disagree with this” have been replaced by “This is dangerous.” Consider the collection of US governors who responded to North Carolina’s transgender bathroom legislation with (mostly symbolic) “non-essential travel” bans for state employees. On the other side of the aisle, consider the President’s continuing crusade against national media. It is not enough for something to merely be wrong; it must be insidious and threatening too. Even for our foremost political leaders, the instinct to boycott, to protest, and to litigate seems to have replaced the instinct to argue and debate.
A lack of trust in public institutions exacerbates the problem.
Making these instincts worse is the erosion many of our public institutions, which often help shape a sense of good faith and shared empathy among those who disagree. Declining public interest in religious institutions signal cultural uncertainty whether religious identity really transcends political tribes (of course, it doesn’t help when religious institutions become too cozy with party politics). As Robert Putnam detailed in his book “Bowling Alone,” many Americans simply do not identify with any meaningful social or religious institution that can create opportunities for mutual empathy. Technology encourages this expressive individualism. Social media especially offers the illusion of togetherness but without crucial human factors like real presence. This is partly why internet debate is so overwhelmingly rancorous and hostile; empathy forms best when people have to see, hear, and encounter one another, and without these experiences, human beings are often reduced to pixels that must defend their honor and sense of outrage against other pixels.
Civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view and understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions to arrive at an opposite conclusion. The ability to differentiate between ideas and people is not a highly nuanced intellectual concept. It is a mark of basic adult thinking, but it does require some level of inherent human trust. In the wreckage of family breakdown and social disintegration, many in our culture grow up without a sense of trust toward others. Without some level of trust, good faith in the midst of disagreement is extraordinarily difficult, since sinful human nature always whispers we believe what we do because we are good, and the other side disagrees because they are evil. This has a double consequence in the public square: Conversations that should happen never do, and on the flip side, demagogues who load their rhetoric with moral indignation sound “real,” “authentic,” and “just.”
We need an active theology of human dignity.
We may be tempted to comfort ourselves that the spirit of Middlebury is not something that could really take root in our own neighborhoods. But as the news fills with heartbreaking stories of racial violence and political hatred, such an assumption is only sticking our heads in the sand. This cultural moment requires response, and especially response from Christians armed with an active theology of human dignity, conscience freedom, and neighbor love. Human beings are created in the image of an infinitely valuable Creator and carry inherent worth and value that cannot be diminished regardless of worldview, no matter how warped. This is a message that we need to carry forth in a culture shaped by pornography and abortion. When attacks of human life and dignity happen, regardless of the tribal identities of victim or victimizer, Christians should not wait to be asked what they think of it.
Moreover, human beings made in the image of God carry moral and spiritual obligations to God that cannot be mediated or abrogated by human institutions. Religious liberty is not euphemism for Christian privilege. Christians should freely befriend and ally, when possible, with those of different religious faiths, and proactively advocate for the conscience freedoms of Muslims and other religious minorities. Further, Christians should devote resources and energy toward building and supporting institutions that bolster conscience freedom. This may mean endowments for schools that exemplify healthy pluralism, or it may mean the creation of new schools that codify the dignity of all students. Most importantly, Christians should practice love of neighbor, and actively resist the spirit of the age that sees others around us as either useful instruments toward our self-actualization or roadblocks that must be avoided.
American culture is having its Middlebury moment. We shouldn’t presume upon the existence of a functional public square. Though the challenges are not unprecedented, they are real, and they require response.