Knight: Intellectual Honesty and Protest

The D’Souza talk was political theater and a missed opportunity.

| 2/21/19 2:15am

 

Dinesh came to campus. Cool heads prevailed. No-one was hurt. Debate transpired. Strong, peaceful protest was seen and heard across campus.

In many ways, Dinsesh D’Souza ’83’s talk was a success for the College that hosted it, a success for the man who gave the talk, and a success for those who disapproved of the visitor and the content of his speech. There were no Antifa guerrillas or jackbooted fascists. The flashes of violence that typified similar events at Middlebury and Berkley had no more presence than the specter of Alpha Delta; looming, but ultimately insignificant. D’Souza’s talk, although it defied my low expectations, proved to be nothing more than a hodgepodge of loose ideas, with mentions of ladders and walls that lacked sticking power and seemed to disappear from the collective imagination minutes after they had been spoken. Even D’Souza’s reputation as a particularly combative debater never showed, and the fireworks that I had expected in the question and answer section appeared as mere sparks, emphasized by a moderator that, at times, declined to hold the microphone to the mouth of the person asking the question. The drama was underwhelming, with expectations dashed by a provocateur who loses his intrigue when he says nothing especially provocative. In the overflow room from where I watched, the loudest and most emotive the crowd ever became was when the feed began to buffer.

So what, if anything, can campus learn from a talk which, when it lost its role as supremely entertaining political theater, languished in mediocrity? Perhaps the focus on D’Souza is improper. He played his part, showing up to his alma mater and delivering a milquetoast speech at a place where he was not particularly welcomed or well-liked.

But it seemed that on campus, the failures of the solemn responsibility of debate, the necessity for one to be informed and intellectually honest, came down largely on the side of the opposition, not for their well-intentioned passion, but for the relative display of intellectual dishonesty that many showed. 

First, let me clarify what I mean. I think this disingenuous approach is best exemplified by a Jack-O Lantern print-out that appeared on campus bearing the headline “Eight Ways to Protest the Dinesh D’Souza Talk, One for Each Month He Spent in Prison” (It is worth noting that the Jack-O is a satirical magazine, with another recent headline proclaiming “In Effort to Impress Students, Professor Begins Cursing”). Unintentionally, the Jack-O exposed a current problem with political discourse on the left and the right: prescriptive protest. It carried the trappings of satire, but it also offered a list of suggestions for protesting D’Souza, from quotes to put on signs, to questions to ask about his tweets, novels and films. The quotes were accurate, and the criticisms well-founded. But why should intelligent, independently-minded students take instruction in their actions and questions from handouts, flyers or social media? (To be clear, the Jack-O is a small part of the problem. Conservative campus groups like Turning Point USA are guilty of the same intellectual sin, but in greater magnitude.)

I wish that everyone in that room, prior to the talk, had taken a moment to research D’Souza themselves. They would have found his reprehensible quotes, excerpts from his absurd books, and clips from his inflammatory, inaccurate films. They would also have found details about his felony conviction for illegally donating $20,000 to a campaign that lost by over 40 points, and his resignation from the presidency of a Christian college after accusations of bigamy and marital infidelity surfaced. But what’s more, they would have gained the satisfaction of deriving their own arguments and acting as their own independent skeptics. Supporters and dissenters alike would be stronger and better equipped in their debates. Simply, I’d bet that had the uninformed come to the talk having done their research, they would’ve been better suited at making a decision about what they saw.

Our institution, and indeed the notion of an informed, intelligent campus, is in grave danger if we allow others to create the questions we ask of authority. We risk transforming a space that stands for vigorous debate into a bleak, color-by-number intellectual wasteland. Tread carefully: it’s up to us.

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