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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Friday, April 22, 2016

How To Imitate One's Opponents

Bruce Frohnen (click here for a bio) has just written an article on the Imaginative Conservative blog about how today's college progressives are steamrolling over the views and even rights of their peers on their certain campuses making these campuses into places of unrest(click here for the article). Some of the reactions to the rude behaviors of these progressives include accusing them of hypocrisy for not showing tolerance for others while portraying themselves as believers in tolerance, muzzling the views of others, and pressuring some officials into resigning. Frohnen then takes the opportunity to stereotype all progressives of wanting something no one can have: a tolerant setting where anything goes with regard to ideas that can be expressed freely. 

Frohnen proposes then that real tolerance, one that does not result in the uncivil behavior he cites which is permeating college campuses, can exist provided that the following two conditions are met. The first condition is that toleration has its limits so that ideas that are too radical cannot be expressed or listened to. The second condition is that there exists a certain orthodoxy in terms of what is believed and accepted in the public square that most, if not all, people in society hold to be true. Frohnen is writing these views from a conservative Christian perspective so who knows what orthodoxy he is referring to. Nevertheless, without both of these conditions being met, tolerance can only eventually become intolerance as evidenced by progressives he describes in his article.

Before commenting any further, we should mention that there are merits to what Frohnen is saying. First, there are campuses where some progressives are disruptively attempting to silence the views of others. Second, certain common beliefs or code of ethics must be present for dissident views to be freely expressed. But one question is the following: What are these common beliefs or accepted behavioral standards that enable an accepted level of tolerance? In addition, how different from the norm can dissident views be and still be expressed in the public square?

There are also problems with Frohnen's views as expressed in the article cited above. The first problem is that he speaks of the incivility of college campuses in such a general way but does not cite specific examples that could verify his claim. Reading his article makes me think that campus incivility due to political fighting is widespread. I do know that some members in the BDS movement on some college campuses have practiced incivility as they vehemently certain events and speakers. That is very wrong and undemocratic. And we have had a number of colleges make the news  because of the racial tensions that exist on campus. The most famous one of these was the University of Missouri where the football team threatened to stop practicing and playing for the school until the then school president resigned from his position.

But my own experience of teaching for 19 and 1/2 years tells me that Frohnen's claims about unrest on campuses are not as widespread as he would have us believe.

Frohnen's second problem is that he seems to be exhibiting an opportunism in attributing the incivility that does exist on campuses solely to all progressives and their idealistic notion that all views should be tolerated while exhibiting intolerance to people they find offensive. Let's take the BDS student movement at California's state universities for example. Before the latest decision made by the regents of those universities, some members of this movement were guilty of displaying anti-Semitism as well as interfering with some events that would promote pro-Israel sentiments. Rather than being content with trying to correct the abuses of individuals in the movement, the regents of the state universities of California decided that BDS and challenges to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish State would be classified as being racist and therefore the airing of these views on any of the California State universities would not be tolerated. One could say that such a decision could result in civility, but the decision is also an attempt at silencing dissenting views on campus?

Frohnen traces the progressive views on tolerance and their intolerant actions toward others to the radicals of the 1960s and even to the radicals who dissented from Woodrow Wilson, when he  tried to get the Princeton faculty involved with both spreading democracy and working for progress in the public square when he was President there. Frohnen seems to forget that Wilson's brand of democracy when he was President of the US during WW I allowed him to jail some who opposed America's entry into the War. And the people he jailed included leftist radicals about whom Frohnen speaks so disparagingly about. 

In short, what separates, in his mind, Frohnen from the progressives he so disapproves of is the civility of how they promote their views. The progressives are uncivil while he is quite restrained and proper in writing his article. But seeing that Frohnen is trying silence these progressives by trying to discredit them,  he becomes no different than them. And this is the point made by this review. For what is more important here, rudeness of actions or presentations or the lack of openness and allowing those who dissent their right to speak? Yes, those BDS members who interfere with the rights of others to speak are wrong. But weren't the regents just as wrong? And isn't what spared the regents from having to act disruptively and rudely when silencing others is that they had authority to make their decisions binding on others? So if Frohnen is trying to silence progressives by misrepresenting them and trying to discredit them, yes, he may be speaking politely, but his trying to silence his opponent nonetheless.

There are a number of factors that can keep us from imitating our own opponents. First, if instead of immediately reacting to their latest provocations of those we oppose, we would first try to understand what they are reacting to, then we might be more likely to act differently to our adversaries than they have acted us. For example, if the regents at California's state universities looked at what those in the BDS movement are so upset about, then perhaps they would target the misbehaviors of those in the movement rather than the members themselves by recognizing that the movement has legitimate concerns. If they had done all of that, then they would not be imitating those in the BDS movement who are trying to silence others.

Second, if we remember the parable of the two men praying (Luke 18:9-14), we would realize that we too are not only vulnerable to engage in the kinds of behaviors that offended us when practiced by our opponents, we have probably previously done what they have to us or others. Understanding this parable keeps us from externalizing evil and pretending to be better than we really are.

Third, if we understand democracy is about sharing more than about voting, we would look to include our opponents in the public square rather than looking for excuses to exclude them. Voting is simply a democratic process. But sharing the public square with others as equals is what democracy is all about. After all, democracy is much more than just political processes, it is a state of being for society. This means that we need to look at how we can share the public square with our opponents.

Keeping these three ideas in mind can help us from imitating our opponents especially when our opponents go wild and behave poorly. Had Frohnen practiced these three suggestions, his criticisms of progressives would carry more legitimacy since they would help prevent him from imitating his opponents' worse qualities.

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