Sure, blame it on the ninjas. A speech by Milo Yiannopoulos had to be cancelled Wednesday night in Berkeley, California, because, according to a UC Berkeley spokesman, “This university was essentially invaded by more than 100 individuals clad in ninja-like uniforms who were armed and engaged in paramilitary tactics,” Mr. Dan Mogulof said. “They were implementing a very clear plan to engage in violence, disruption and property destruction.”
But the problem Wednesday night did not start with the ninjas. And it didn’t start with Milo either. It started with a university that does not support free speech. It started with an academic culture that believes whomever takes the deepest offense wins the argument. It started with a faculty who worry about microaggressions and administrators who take such concerns seriously. It started with adults who have failed to show kids how to engage in reasoned discussion.
A few years ago, I attended a debate sponsored by a group called Intelligence Squared. The group’s debates, which focus on public policy, culture, religion, science, and other hot-button topics, are notable for the big name debaters they attract. Malcolm Gladwell was one of the contenders I saw. But the most impressive part of the event was the end. The winner is determined by counting up the number of people who changed their mind during the course of the debate. When was the last time you saw someone listen to an argument and actually change his or her mind? In our polarized society, where we read, watch, and listen only to ideas from inside our chosen media bubbles, mind-changing is the stuff of myth. Indeed, many believe it is the stuff of cowardice.
But according to Intelligence Squared, which has 130 of these debates archived on its website, half of the people who watch these debates change their minds—which is precisely why I think public debate is the only way to change the atmosphere on college campuses these days.
It is fine for the College Republicans to invite Milo or Ann Coulter or some other inflammatory figure to campus in order to prove a point about how narrow-minded and uniformly liberal their campus is. But it would be a much more effective use of their money and a more productive use of everyone’s time if they sponsored campus debates. Maybe they could invite a conservative from the outside and get a professor to debate him or her. Maybe they could consult with the College Democrats to sponsor a joint event.
As things stand now, speakers are invited to campus and, if you agree with them, you will go to the auditorium to listen, and if you disagree, you will stand outside protesting. How much better would it be if students could see two adults take on each other’s arguments in calm, articulate, informed terms? Some of the most inflammatory speakers might not come. It’s so much easier, after all, to shout slogans than to be challenged by a smart person on the other side of the aisle. But if the track record of Intelligence Squared is any guide, at least some of our public intellectuals would rise to the occasion.
It might not make headlines like the bonfires prompted by Milo’s speech at Berkeley did this week, but last time I checked, higher education was supposed to be a training camp for young minds, not a training camp for ninjas.