Last week, St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Commu- nity hosted a conference entitled “Disagreement – A Sympo- sium for Constructive Political Discourse and Inquiry.”
The conference opened Thursday evening with Mark Kin- gwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and his talk “Jerks, Asshats, and the Unstable Politics of Civil- ity,” in which he made a passionate philosophical argument for a higher level of civility in today’s political discourse.
The focal point of the symposium was Friday afternoon’s speech from Jonathan Haidt, a New York University profes- sor who studies social and moral psychology, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Haidt sought to explain the rise of an increasingly divided America through the lens of moral psychology. He shared various data show- ing that Congress is more polarized than it has ever been, ide- ological purity is on the rise and there is less cooperation and more strife between the Democratic and Republican parties in the government than ever before. This is a big problem, according to Haidt, because a functioning and cooperative government is a crucial prerequisite to tackling more signifi- cant threats posed by the likes of ISIS or global warming.
“Hyper-partisanship is our most serious problem,” Haidt said.
Haidt’s lecture progressed from the psychological and moral roots of liberal and conservative ideologies to dis- agreement as it relates to free speech. Haidt addressed some of the recent controversies surrounding race and diversity on college campuses such as Missouri, Yale, Emory, Brown and others. Haidt’s view, which raised some controversy among students, is that a divide has risen between the “liberal left and the illiberal left.” In other words, Haidt thinks that the protests at schools that are already progressive institutions demonstrate that there is an increasingly large fraction of young, liberal college students who simply refuse to hear viewpoints other than their own. This is a problem, Haidt says, because a crucial and integral component of diversity is difference in political thought and opinion.
One of his most controversial points was the notion that words are not violence, and someone should not be punished
just because he or she says something on a political or social issue that offends someone else.
“Once you say that words that offend someone are violent, then again, a hundred years from now, the problem is going to be worse – we’ll never ever solve it,” Haidt said.
John Smith ’19, who attended all of the lectures with many other St. Olaf students found them relevant to life on campus. “The symposium couldn’t have come at a better time. In the wake of the email fiasco last week, students have free speech and discourse on their minds. To bring in speakers with vastly different takes on the same issue, disagreement, was very smart,” Smith said.
Following Haidt was Sarah Sobieraj, a professor of soci- ology at Tufts University, whose lecture also addressed the theme of political division but with a focus on the role that outrage, particularly in the media, has played in increasing political division. In this regard, Sobieraj explained that the role that media has played in our society has changed drasti- cally over the last 20 to 30 years. Market forces have shaped a landscape of media outlets that often report news with what- ever spin will get the most viewers, and therefore increase profits. This might be one reason why there is seemingly 24/7 coverage of Donald Trump.
St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jason Marsh was impressed with the quality of the speakers.
“I couldn’t be more sympathetic with the idea that we need to learn to disagree in better and more humane ways,” he said. “Despite certain disagreements that I had with some of the speakers’ points, that core point seems to me exactly right.”