• 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.

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The University of Chicago and the Magical Powers of "Reasoned Debate"

I'm not so sure reasoned debate has quite the influence some seem to believe.

January 29, 2018
 
 

 

 

 

Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has invited Steve Bannon, formerly of the Trump Administration and Breitbart News, to speak at the University of Chicago campus.

In a statement Professor Zingales said,

“I can hardly think of a more important issue for new citizens and business leaders of the world than the backlash against globalization and immigration that is taking place not just in America, but in all the Western world… Whether you agree with him or not (and I personally do not), Mr. Bannon has come to interpret and represent this backlash in America. For this reason, I invited Mr. Bannon to a debate on these issues with our faculty. I firmly believe that the current problems in America cannot be solved by demonizing those who think differently, but by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction. Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason.”

Let me stipulate the obvious, that Prof. Zingales and the University of Chicago are well within their rights to invite anyone they wish to speak at the campus.

I also do not particularly and personally fear whatever Steve Bannon has to say. He is, at this point, a known-known. But this isn’t to say we should treat these events as entirely innocuous.

What most grabbed my attention is two things, A: the amount of faith that Luigi Zingales and the University of Chicago seem to put in the power of “reasoned debate, and B: Their belief that Steve Bannon is someone with whom one is likely to have a substantive reasoned debate which will further what Prof. Zingales calls the “primary mission” of the university, “to form new citizens of the world.” 

Starting with the second point first, there is very little evidence to suggest that Steve Bannon is someone who is interested in a “reasoned debate” on a clash of viewpoints.

Until recently, Bannon was the head of a publication whose editor-in-chief, Alex Marlow, freely admitted that its “coverage” of the accusations against Senate candidate for Alabama Roy Moore was motivated to protect President Trump against a setting of the bar on sexual misconduct “that President Trump cannot reach.”

This coverage was directed by Steve Bannon.

Despite believing one of Moore’s accusers, Leigh Corfman, “had a lot of credibility,” Bannon’s organization sought to discredit her and others. In Marlow’s words, “I think it’s part of the reason why it was so important for Breitbart to continue our coverage of the way we covered it … and for Steve in particular to hold the line the way he did for — I think part of it is because it’s not just about Judge Moore, it is not even just about establishment, anti-establishment. It’s about what’s coming next for President Trump.” 

This is an admission that promoting lies in the service of a political agenda is not only legitimate, but in this case necessary to protect one’s political allies. One would assume that a reasoned debate requires the debaters to operate in some measure of good faith. What evidence do we have that Steve Bannon embraces or reflects these core values?

Given this evidence, why should we expect Steve Bannon to be capable of participating in a reasoned debate at all? Objecting to Bannon isn’t rooted in hatred. I believe his ideology to be both a historical and immoral, but this is not “hatred,” at least as Prof. Zingales is strawmanning the term. He is simply unworthy of the status the University of Chicago wishes to confer upon him.

If Bannon’s invitation is instead related to his prominence, is this now the bar for inclusion in these high-minded reasoned debates? Will Logan Paul be invited to the University of Chicago for a discussion of media ethics next?[1]

As confounding as it is to believe Steve Bannon is a promising interlocutor for a reasoned debate, it is the first proposition which has me more mystified, specifically where Zingales says, “Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason.”

Huh? Perhaps hate cannot defeat hate, but does this mean our only alternative is “reason?”

I’m trying to think of a single instance in recorded history where hate was defeated by reason and I’m coming up short. Did the reason of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation end the Civil War?

Did Martin Luther King Jr. reason the cattle prod out of Selma sheriff Jim Clark’s hands?

The faith Zingales puts in the power of  “reasoned debate” is essentially magical, an all-powerful remedy for whatever ails you.

Leaky gutters? Try reasoned debate! Dandruff? Reasoned debate! Things gotten chilly in the marital bed? Give reasoned debate a try! White nationalist ideology becoming central to the government’s immigration policy? Reasoned debate to the rescue!

I believe in this case, the University of Chicago’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas is more symbolic and performative than substantive. Inviting Steve Bannon is an attention-grabbing symbol that says, “Hey, open-minded people over here!” but it’s an inch-deep commitment to the values they claim to hold dear. Meanwhile, they've got some academic messy academic freedom issues where they seem less reverent of full and free reasoned debate.

For one example, even as they get ready to welcome Bannon, they continue to fight the rights to free association and representation sought through graduate student unionization. They attempted to even prevent a vote.

As a second example, Bannon’s invite also led to the ultimate resignation of Samantha Eyler-Driscoll as a member of the University of Chicago Stigler Center publication ProMarket. After her objections to the Bannon invitation were overruled by the board and her request to be personally recused from promoting the event was not fully respected, she was informed by human resources that as staff, unlike Zingales and Bannon, she was not “protected under the University’s stated principles of freedom of expression…and perceived insubordination could be grounds for termination of my employment.” 

In her resignation from the board, Eyler-Driscoll observes, “My situation is only the latest example of the ubiquitous reality in this country whereby the de jure notion of an absolute right to freedom of expression conceals a de facto reality in which the right to free expression of the powerful is enforced at the expense of that of their subordinates.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the Bannon invitation will lead to a reasoned debate about the academic freedom of staff members and other nontenurable employees relative to others at the university.[2]

I share those high-minded ideals about the role of the university in creating citizen leaders, but the notion that this mission is informed by inviting someone like Steve Bannon to campus for a reasoned debate is beyond naïve. Trying to pass it off as a necessary step towards understanding those who differ from us suggests Zingales thinks we’re easily fooled.

Though, I do not think it is naïveté which is at work here. Instead, I think we’re looking at a kind of trend where engaging in these sorts of stunts is a handy way to loudly and publicly signal “champions of free speech” without risking confronting much more difficult questions surrounding campus speech and academic freedom. This is a PR stunt, meant to inoculate the institution against charges of run-amok liberalism.[3]

See, we can’t be too politically correct. We invited Steve Bannon!

I believe those on the right deride this sort of performance as “virtue signaling.”

I am a big fan of reasoned debate, but I’ll need some convincing to believe the U of C Bannon invite is anything other than spectacle and show.

Meanwhile, it looks like they have some substantive issues to address.

 

 

 

 

[1] Inside Higher Ed’s resident reviewer Scott McLemee recently highlighted a list of forthcoming scholarly examinations of the Trump phenomenon. I bet any of these authors could shed more light on the questions Luigi Zingales wishes to explore than Steve Bannon. 

[2] It’s reminiscent of another time the University of Chicago wanted to broadcast their free speech bona fides by issuing a chest thumping welcome letter in which the refused to support trigger warnings or condone safe spaces, only to have their own faculty “fire back” with a response affirming the rights of students to ask for these things. 

[3] It’s interesting and possibly worth a separate post exploring it in more detail to note that elite institutions seem to be the most eager in this kind of symbolic act. Harvard extended Sean Spicer a visiting fellowship mere weeks after resigning from his press secretary job a position he largely disgraced. Despite the most notable story of the Trump administration being historically low first term approval, the New York Times seems determined to speak to every single one of his remaining supporters.

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