On the Usefulness of (Heather Mac Donald’s) Bad Ideas

Rebecca:

I went to a conservative Mennonite Brethren college where the dominant theology was — and officially remains — that homosexual activity is a sin. Despite the official view, a Bible professor of mine brought to campus a pair of gay men, Christians if I recall correctly, to talk about how they squared their lives with scripture.

It was an interesting hour, and in retrospect I admire those two men for braving what they knew would be a deeply hostile audience. (Particularly at the time, in the early 1990s, when the fear of AIDS added an additional layer of anger and terror to the topic.) I don’t remember specifics of the discussion that day, though I’m sure I can guess what the arguments were. I do remember, though, that it was a highly emotional day.

One more thing I remember: A sense that day that many of my classmates (and, to be honest, probably myself) regarded the encounter as a debate to be won, rather than contemplating this possibility: That beyond who could best cite and wield scriptures, there were actual, real lives to be contended with. It was one of a series of events in college that shaped me into who I am today: Quasi-agnostic, firmly liberal, and ardently gay-loving.

I don’t want to suggest that hearing gay men express the truth of their lives is the same as letting racists come to campus to spew ugly ideas. But I do want to suggest that a good education can and does occasionally include exposure to ideas that we regard as utterly incorrect. Not just because our minds will be changed, as happened in my case. There are several reasons.

Let me back up and preface those reasons with this: We agree that Heather Mac Donald is the purveyor of bad ideas that promote the glorification and empowerment of cops and often, nearly always, do so at the expense of minorities. We differ a little bit, though, in one aspect: I’m very frustrated with campus leftists who have tried to shut down her talks at colleges; you wonder why a college would invite Mac Donald to speak in the first place.

And I recognize that your objections are grounded in rigor, compassion, and a deadly low tolerance for bullshit. You ask: How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?” I love the concern, the love for students, and the love of high academic standards that are all mixed up in that question.

And it’s a good question. Let me parse my answer carefully. I don’t think a good education requires a college to invite Heather Mac Donald to speak. But if a college — or a student-led club therein, which is often the case in these matters — chooses to bring her to campus, I believe it can be of some use.

Three reasons:

Even bad ideas are worthy of scrutiny. Here’s my best example of this, Rebecca: Your own career.

Your book, “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right,” examines Westboro Baptist Church and its place in American theological traditions. Westboro’s ideas are awful and ugly and disreputable — even churches that can be honestly described as “anti-gay” want no part of the Phelps clan. You examined the ideas closely, and you spent a fair amount of time with the Phelpses to boot. That was painful, I’m guessing. But the work is valuable. It wasn’t accomplished by turning away.

So one way to respond to Heather Mac Donald is to protest. Another is to treat her as an opportunity to study. What does she believe? What are the antecedents for the belief? Put her in context. That context, I think, reveals how small and shallow her ideas are.

Because we too easily believe in our own righteousness. All of us are prone to confirmation bias, “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” Sometimes the best way to test our own ideas is to temper them against the hard edge of contrary belief, even beliefs that — at first blush — we might consider foolish. Where better to do such testing than in college?

Understand: I don’t think I’m suddenly going to find Heather Mac Donald persuasive. But the exercise of testing my beliefs against hers can be a valuable one. They can sharpen my ideas and arguments, or at least help me anticipate the objections to my own ideas and be ready with an answer.

The first two reasons are too light and ephemeral, admittedly. Mac Donald’s ideas have real-world consequences, cause real-world pain. Why burden our students with that pain? The real-world answer?

The spread of bad ideas doesn’t stop at campus borders. Heather Mac Donald earns a living doing what she does because A) there’s enough of an audience for it and B) a portion of that audience is willing to pay for it. And judging by the November 2016 voting results, there are plenty of Americans who believe the kinds of things she believes to shift the balance of power in this country. The ideas that count don’t always stand up to peer review, but they must be contended with nonetheless.

I’m sorry for students of color who have to put up with this bullshit. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to argue for your rights, your very being as a human. It’s unfair. And it’s easy for me, because I’m a white guy, to talk about good and bad ideas when mostly it’s theory to me — I’m unlikely to endure a stop-and-frisking anytime soon.

But the bullshit is out there. It is widespread. It is powerful. How many times do BLM supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter?” There’s no limit. There probably never will be. There will always be people who subscribe to notions we believe are mistaken, and so the work of pushing back never, ever ends. That’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. So our colleges and universities might as well equip students to do that work.

I wrote elsewhere recently: “Free speech requires forbearance from us, as well as persistence. It means we must counter bad speech with more speech, then do it again, then again and again, long after it seems to us the argument has been settled. And we do it because we want the same forbearance extended to us.”

Again, I don’t think it’s necessary that colleges and universities welcome bad ideas into their midst. But I can see the use of it. And in any case, I still think the proper response when Mac Donald ventures onto your campus is not to try and prevent her voice from being heard. Instead, make your own heard. And be ready to prove your ideas are better. Drowning out the voice of our opponents does not furnish such proof. It looks, in fact, like weakness.

I’ll let you have the last word in this thread. Thanks for hearing me out.

—Joel

 

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