Fighting Destructive Debate

The poisoned debate in national politics is nothing new. During the last four years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have exchanged vitriolic and largely baseless insults. Two of the most egregious involved Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler on the floor of the Senate, and Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (D-Ohio) calling Congressman John Murtha (R-Penn.), a decorated former Marine, a coward.

This kind of name-calling that dominates politics has been bemoaned by countless political commentators—Jon Stewart has practically built a second career criticizing the nastiness of Washington debates. And many a politician has based his or her appeal on promises to end this kind of bickering.

One might hope then that universities, particularly Harvard, would be places where facts could be exchanged for empty rhetoric and shrill insults. Unfortunately, my four years here have indicated otherwise. Too many Harvard debates have devolved into the same pointless and destructive mudslinging that is all too common in Washington.

In 2002, our own University President Lawrence H. Summers essentially declared supporters of divestment from Israel to be anti-Semitic. The criticism stifled legitimate debate and it was still dampening discussion a year later, when I arrived at Harvard. Summers himself was also the victim of baseless accusations. Protestors outside a faculty meeting in 2005 accused Summers of being racist and anti-gay. My freshman spring, I watched Lecturer Brian C.W. Palmer ’86 and a few students in his class, Religion 1529, “Personal Choice and Global Transformation,” berate Summers, the invited guest speaker, for supposedly valuing money over human dignity. In keeping with other such attacks, little evidence was provided to back up such insults.

Not only do these actions cause the tenor of the debate to sink, but those not involved in the discussion are put off. This is particularly damaging given the current rancorous political culture. Now, more than ever, universities need to serve as forums for intelligent and well-reasoned discussions about the serious problems our country faces.

But instead of seeking a return to reason and facts, thereby elevating currently debased discussions, too many people respond simply by dragging the debate down further. Worse than insulting their opponents, these protestors react by not even allowing the other side to speak. They simply attempt to shout over any opponent. The most recent example of such behavior was the harassment of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III at an Institute of Politics Forum in April. Four students began shouting at Mueller about a minute into his talk and continued yelling until they were arrested. This protest did nothing to generate any type of debate. I cannot think of a single person who was prompted to consider the FBI’s alleged infringement of civil liberties. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what the protestors were actually protesting until I looked it up.

Of course there are legitimate arguments and concerns behind these statements. But the valid issues are obscured by name-calling and disrespect. When people shout over their opponents, or throw around words like “racist,” “homophobic,” or “anti-Semitic” without strong evidence, they not only insult those they attack, they discredit themselves. They appear irrational and closed to discussion, thereby killing any chance of people engaging in any meaningful or intelligent debate.

That is too bad, because it means that too many debates on campus have become reminiscent of the worst of the television news programs like The O’Reilly Factor, where the host cuts off the mike of guests whose opinion he dislikes. The protesters here like to think they are advancing their views and agenda. Instead, with their lack of respect for rational discourse, they are no better than the thuggish O’Reilly.

Harvard is an institution that aims to inspire civil, logic-driven, factual discussions. As its graduates, we must go into the world demanding these kinds of debates, even if we did not always find them here. We should draw on Harvard’s positive examples: I have seen, at times, constructive debate and genuine learning in classes, at the Harvard Political Union, Crimson editorial meetings, or just in casual discussions between friends. As the rancor and poisonous atmosphere in Washington seems to be spreading into Harvard, we graduates must make an effort to inject facts, logic, and civility into the social and political discussions we encounter in the real world. The problems these debates supposedly seek to address are too important for us to just sit by and let the pettiness continue.

Andrew B. English ’07 is an economics concentrator in Cabot House. He was a Crimson associate editorial chair in 2006.