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

 

Why is Heather MacDonald Still Talking? A Case Study in Lazy White Campus Speakers

Joel:

We both love the First Amendment, you as a journalist, me as a hate studies and religious scholar, and probably both of us as people who sometimes like to share unpopular opinions.

Which is why I remind you that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Heather MacDonald’s right to spout racist nonsense at a private college. It guarantees her the right to create a platform and to use it to speak, not to stand on someone else’s platform, without government interference.  She can write (another) manuscript about how police officers are mistreated (Her newest, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, is a new screed on an old theme for her. She released Are Cops Racist? How the War against the Police Harms Black Americans in 2003. From the subtitles, you might get the impression that she really cares people of color.), but no one has to publish it. She can stand in a public space and say just about anything she likes, but no one has to offer her an invitation into the space that they own.  That Claremont McKenna College chose to invite her is a stain on them.

This does not mean, though, that, if she is invited, she should be shouted down. Like you, I’m a believer that more speech, not censorship, is the answer to hateful speech. I love to see students responding to deplorable words and ideas by arguing for something better, and I actively work with students who are opposing hate speech on campus in efforts to do just that.  Turning MacDonald’s race baiting, fear mongering, and flirtations with fascism into an opportunity to develop new research, argumentation, and presentation is a great way for students to practice skills we desperately need in the public sphere.

But what happens when students have already done that? When the burden of doing that work falls so heavily (again) on people of color? 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?

The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether the college has the right to invite her; they do. But in doing so, they make clear to their students that 1) creating a campus where students can learn free from racism does not matter and 2) faulty logic, lousy data, lazy research, and a thesis in defense of the status quo somehow comprise “scholarship” worth listening to.

Both of those issues are important. Claremont McKenna shouldn’t have invited MacDonald because she had to make a lousy argument in order to draw her wrong, racist conclusion.

HM

Above, a flyer advertising a speech by MacDonald. Professional tip for campus speakers: If your argument is factual, informed, honest, accurate, logical, and intellectually rigorous, it’s never going to end up being racist.

Consider it this way: Should a black student have to hear an argument that we know is measurably incorrect and that foments further hostility toward black people? How can anyone argue against teaching about white privilege while simultaneously teaching stereotypes of black people? (Answer: Because they are racist and also unbothered by facts.) How does permitting speech that isolates and alienates people who have historically been shut out of higher ed further the mission of higher education? When you are a black student at a predominantly white institution, why should you have to rally against what is clearly a lousy argument? The fact that you even have to do this bullshit work is a bit racist. A second-class white intellectual gets a platform to blow racist hot air, and you have to be the one to call her out? Even when white allies join the fight, it places black people, once again, as the source of the trouble. Why should any student have to listen to an argument that vilifies black people? What harms are caused when such arguments appear on campus with the stamp of university approval? (When such arguments appear on the public sidewalks, the story is different. And there, we are pretty much okay with counterpicketers shouting people down.)

But the racism is only part of my problem with MacDonald. The other part is my problem with universities inviting lazy thinkers to campus. MacDonald is a right-wing intellectual star, but that’s because the conservative galaxy is so generally dim. She seems to me to be one of what Elspeth Reeves, writing about the alt-right, calls “a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them.”

MacDonald’s ideas are of little value, and campuses should not invest precious resources—and absorb opportunity costs—in creating a platform for them. In responding to the protest on campus, Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh appealed to the idea that campuses should be places where challenging ideas can be freely exchanged [Italics mine]:

[T]he breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively.

This is a rather generous view of MacDonald’s writing.

College students deserve better opportunities to engage across lines of difference. And if there is no one out there who can draw the same racist conclusions that MacDonald draws using a better argument, maybe it means that colleges, which should value argumentation, don’t really need to invite racists to campus.