The Pragmatic Left

Debate and Dialogue


Three years ago, The Middlebury Campus Editorial Board published “The Coddling of the Middlebury Mind.” The editors critiqued what they perceived as Middlebury’s “culture of protectiveness.” They argued that the college’s emphasis on safe spaces and political correctness insulated students, depriving them of opportunities to confront uncomfortable or offensive viewpoints and thereby become better at refuting them with reason and evidence. “The world-at-large is not Middlebury,” the editors wrote, “and we fear we are leaving here unprepared for the ‘unsafe spaces’ that await us.”

Less than two years after The Campus published that editorial, the Charles Murray incident took place. The protests, which turned violent and left one faculty member injured, came to epitomize progressives’ flawed understanding of freedom of speech as a principle that does not apply to offensive ideas.

In the world beyond Middlebury College, the Supreme Court has repeatedly, clearly and correctly stated that, while we are understandably disturbed by offensive speech, and therefore logically want to silence this speech, it is a key function of the First Amendment to protect hate speech. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the difficulty of deciding who will determine when speech becomes “offensive” and what criteria will be used to make this decision. I, for one, do not want President Trump or Attorney General Sessions deciding what speech they will use the levers of government power to punish because they determine that it is “offensive.” 

In the recent case of Snyder v. Phelps (2011), the Court, by a vote of 8-1, held that the First Amendment protected the Westboro Baptist Church’s admittedly offensive and hateful speech, even though it was delivered in the presence of a funeral for a soldier who died in Iraq. The Court acknowledged the odious and homophobic speech at issue and the pain it must have caused the family to endure that speech while burying their son. Nonetheless, both liberal and conservative justices (only Justice Alito dissented) agreed that, while a majority of people may speak back and refute offensive speech, they cannot prohibit it.

The Murray fiasco kindled a national debate within the left. Some scholars, journalists and prominent Democrats demanded a renewed commitment to the open market of ideas. They asserted that if we allow vigorous debates about policies and ideas, liberalism would win based on facts and reason, not censorship.

Others argued that attacks on political correctness reflected a lack of understanding of the challenges that offensive speech inflicts on marginalized groups. Progressives, like New York Times writer Charles Blow, argued that nothing valuable comes from engaging conservatives in discourse. “The Enlightenment,” Blow declared, “must never bow to the Inquisition.”

Blow’s comments, however, represent a problem with modern American political dialogue. While we often hear about how alternative facts and echo chambers have corroded bipartisan conversation, the left has failed to address some of its own issues. One such issue is our tone. Polls show that Americans particularly dislike the righteous condemnation of the left, and that is one of many factors that have driven the Democratic Party into the wilderness (we now control fewer elected positions in the United States than at any time since the 1920s). 

Part of that sentiment arises from the idea that the left, particularly on college campuses, should be empowered to censor ideas that it considers offensive, instead of prevailing through open argument based on facts and reason. “When the loudest voices on the left talk about people on the right as either beyond the pale or dupes of their betters,” writes libertarian journalist Katherine Mangu-Ward, “it is with an air of barely concealed smugness.” The left’s tonal issues have handicapped our ability to talk to — let alone appeal to — voters who may help the Democratic Party win some elections. At the risk of stating the obvious, in a democracy, if you consistently lose elections, the other side dictates policy.

Right-wingers have responded to the left’s self-righteousness with increasingly toxic trolling. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of worsening discourse: “the more smugness, the more satisfying it is to poke holes in it; the more toxic the trolling, the greater the sense of moral superiority,” Mangu-Ward notes. 

If liberals can restore the primacy of debate and dialogue at Middlebury and beyond, they will win many of these debates. More importantly, they will persuade some previously skeptical voters and thereby restore the Democratic Party’s political relevance. This process starts with dropping demands for censorship in places where we have the power to do so and realizing that we can learn from people who disagree with us. Equally important, we can win some of these arguments as opposed to simply stopping them from happening in the first place.

Joey Lyons is a member of the Middlebury College Class of 2021.