About Those Violent Campus Protests

I like what National Review’s David French has to say about the recent violent protests at UC Berkeley. Though I would probably be more sympathetic to the difference between protesters and rioters, I think French is exactly right on two important points. First, no rhetoric, no matter how incendiary, no matter how offensive, merits physical violence against innocent people (note: the question whether violence is ever defensible against real-time acts of aggression and injustice is a much different question).

Second, the response to riots and public violence from the Left has been pathetic. Of course, nobody important actively endorses the kind of thing we see in this video. But as French notes, key public responses to the rioting from people like the mayor of the city and the state’s lieutenant governor are far too whimsical. The idea that unequivocally condemning destruction and violence in your city somehow compromises your political integrity or makes you complicit in policies you oppose is ridiculous. Yet it seems that more and more American public discourse is eaten up with this kind of zero-sum tribalism that makes censure of the bad done by one’s own side virtually impossible. If assaulting people at a political rally or injuring innocent bystanders at a protest aren’t worth condemning even if they happen in one’s own ideological camp, then I genuinely worry we’ve reached a point of no return.

Whatever happened to the rules of debate? I took a speech and debate class in high school, and one thing that was emphasized regularly was the difference between ideas and people. Ideas were what we were fighting for or against. They had to built up, knocked down, exposed, and argued. People, though, were to be respected. Saying something about your opponent that you should have said about their idea was a debate crime called ad hominem, “attacking the man.” Committing ad hominem wasn’t just poor form; it was almost always a sign that you were losing the argument.

But here’s the thing about ad hominem. The concept of ad hominem presumes that there is a difference between things talked about and the individuals talking about them. That’s what “hominem” means. If it’s wrong to attack a person in a debate, but debate is still possible, that means that’s there’s something else being talked about in debate than a person. There is a difference, in other words, between ideas and people. To argue concepts, principles, and philosophies is not the same as arguing the worthiness of your opponent. If it were the same, then “ad hominem” wouldn’t be a fallacy; it would be our only mode of discourse.

I think this concept of a difference between people and ideas is endangered right now. What many of us in American culture are becoming acclimated to is a radically deconstructed identity politics, wherein we think of the clash between Left and Right not as a contest of ideas by mutually well-intentioned people, but as a culture war between good people (=my side) and bad people (=your side). This way of thinking stimulates activism and solidarity, but it also necessarily reduces individuals to their worldview.

This is one area where I think the contemporary evangelical focus on “worldview training” has served the church poorly. Worldviews are certainly real things, and it’s important that we understand how what we believe affects every aspect of our life. But people are not their worldview. You cannot divide the world up into “secularists” vs Christians, or “traditionalists” vs progressives. Those words can be useful shorthands, but they also obscure the fact that ideas are not people. True–to be against secularism is in one sense to be against the unmitigated acquisition of power by people with a secular worldview. But secular people are not secularism, and identifying human persons with an ideology category doesn’t allow enough space for differentiating between ideas and the persons who talk about them.

I believe one reason that violence and cruelty in our cultural discourse seems to be on the rise is that we do not feel a differentiation between people and ideas, and thus, failing to attack someone personally feels like a failure of conviction, or even a tacit admission of defeat. Because we identify ourselves so closely with our ideological in-groups, hearing a critique of our ideology sounds like a threat. In the case of what’s going on in American campus culture, deconstructive theories of language have, I think, culminated in students’ frustration with the liberal inconsistencies of universities–which teach that the world is sorted by oppressor vs oppressed in the classroom, but then expect civility and politeness on the weekends.

If you have no category for why people who disagree with your basic assumptions about life, God, and the economy may be as well-intentioned as you are, then you may not see the difference between them and their ideas. And if you don’t see the difference between ideas and people, then what you believe is threatening about the former now becomes true of the latter. And then you burn stuff.

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