Rudoff: Civil discourse is alive. People like Stephens are destroying it.

Jackson Rudoff, Copy Editor

Trigger Warning: this article contains a brief reference to another article about campus rape statistics

Today, Interim President Scott Cowen sent out one of his typical “Thinking Out Loud” emails. Generally, I enjoy reading them. It’s rare that a university president is willing to regularly try and spur discussion across campus.

This week’s email, however, on the subject of “Civil Discussion,” needed a copy editor. It perpetuated one of the most tired arguments in today’s politics: that civil discussion is dead, and ideological polarization is killing it. I will grant that political polarization is definitely a problem. But what Cowen has failed to do is read the room.

Citing columnist Bret Stephens when trying to make a point about the issues of modern discourse is abhorrently ill-conceived. Modern discourse, especially about politics, is partially broken because of scholars like him––who, instead of considering the issues with their own ideology, claim the problem is that everyone is too ideological. 

Cloistered within the pages of the New York Times Opinion page, Stephens has become a figurehead of the modern “get off my lawn” movement within popular political thought. With a cushy gig and relatively few consequences for their actions, these columnists lament the state of modern society and wonder aloud how we let things get so bad. All the while, they don’t consider one simple fact: that they are actually the problem.

One of the more infamous “Bret moments” includes an article where he referred to campus rape statistics as one of liberalism’s “imaginary enemies.” Meanwhile, his first column for the Times was a textbook case of climate change denial masking as skepticism. And, on numerous occasions, he has gone out of his way to direct columns toward Arab or Muslim figures prominent in the news. One of these pieces even featured the phrase, “the disease of the Arab mind.”

But king among all of these was the “Secret of Jewish Genius” piece, which incurred a firestorm after it cited a 2005 paper, “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” which was co-written by a University of Utah professor with a long history of white nationalism and anti-Black sentiments.  It’s a classic case of supremacist rhetoric and was rightly condemned at the time. 

This isn’t a case of ideological acceptance or discursive breakdowns. I despise Stephens because he has demonstrated a pattern of opinions that transcend political disagreement. I refuse to “hear out” someone who passively legitimizes rhetoric that leads to irreparable damage to our social fabric. The greatest problem in political discourse is that people like him, who bend the truth so it lies flush with their worldview, cannot understand the distaste that others have for their opinions. 

Basically, I reserve the right to tell someone to shut up if they can’t see an issue with invoking eugenicist rhetoric in their pop-science article. Especially when that person’s brand is founded in their education and rhetorical prowess. 

We, as future academics, leaders, researchers––whatever you want to call us––are entering one of the most uncertain political, social and environmental climates in recent history. There is no more room for people like Stephens, who refuse to recognize their own shortcomings, to ask us to reopen the lines of conversation in America. We should not be asked to take cues from vain ideologues who disdain the state of the public arena, and rely on half-truths and vapid argumentation as a way to keep the lingering strains of their outdated opinions alive. 

The utility of disagreement is only maintained if we all do so in good faith, and I don’t think many who parrot Stephens’ points fall into that category. Those who complain about echo chambers and “islands of ideology” are the ones that continue to make ill-conceived arguments while searching desperately for any explanation of their poor reception other than that they are simply wrong. 

Stephens isn’t the only high-profile author complicit in this phenomenon; there are bad-faith attempts to criticize modern discourse across the entire ideological spectrum. The Columbia Journalism Review has been forced to regularly address op-ed issues now, because of just how many mistaken pieces are published these days by reputable authors. But I’m picking on Stephens in particular because I am in disbelief at the irony of Cowen’s citation of his piece.

How could Cowen, in the face of what Stephens has shown to be his brand, continue to promote the journalist’s thoughts on disagreement? I’m not saying Cowen should have “cancelled” Stephens or whatever you choose to call it, but all I see is a failure to do research. There are definitely better, more accurate pieces on the nature of disagreement than those written by demonstrated bigots. 

Given the timing, what with an impeachment trial happening over in Washington, I imagine Cowen’s piece was intended to provide some insight so we can better make sense of the current political climate. But intentions are only worth so much. The realm of public discourse can’t help us so long as people like Stephens rely on wonky epistemology to justify their political theory. 

I realize that there is a vague irony that underlies all of this. Cowen’s point was to say that discourse is too heated and that if we let our biases override our intellect, we can’t progress as a society. I totally get that, and agree that, too often, our public discourse resembles what you see from debate kids who only prepared the night before. 

But I’ll be damned if I’m expected to take notes from Bret Stephens on how to conduct myself. His contributions to public reason have been objectively net negative. I will dispute him until the day I die, and I will not be courteous about it until he demonstrates some responsibility. 

Gmail gives you the chance to call back an email shortly after it’s sent, and for this week’s Thinking Out Loud, I really wish Cowen had used it.