In early March, Charles Murray, invited by a group of conservative students at Middlebury College to speak about his book, Coming Apart, was shouted off stage and harassed as he left campus. Mr. Murray is a target of protesters because of his controversial book, The Bell Curve, which published in 1994 and was widely discredited for advancing a hereditary theory of intelligence. The confrontation left Professor Allison Stranger, who tried to shield Mr. Murray from the hecklers, in a neck brace. To its credit, the college did everything within its power to allow Mr. Murray to express his views and to give dissenters the chance to challenge him. But for a small subset of protesters, reasoned debate was not an option; the mere presence of a man they stridently characterized as a “racist, sexist, anti-gay” white nationalist was seen as “an intense act of aggression.”
The incident at Middlebury joins a litany of protests against conservative speakers at colleges and universities. Most of these demonstrations do not end in violence. But, as Professor Stanger wrote in an op-ed article, “All violence is a breakdown of communication.” And today, more Americans seem less interested in communicating with people they disagree with. This is true not only among elite collegians beholden to the language of safe spaces and trigger warnings but also among Republican state legislators who seek to increase penalties for protesters in order to create politically safe spaces for themselves.
How might we break down these barriers to communication in order to foster the dialogue that a liberal arts education—and democracy—require? One could argue that in the “marketplace of ideas,” ignorant or hateful speech will inevitably lose out to speech that is true and just. But those who demand safe spaces are not wrong when they say that the marketplace has rarely been perfectly “free” but rather has been monopolized by the privileged and powerful.
Presupposing another’s good intentions does not mean papering over real disagreements.
What is needed, then, is a case for civility and engagement across the lines of ideology, race and class grounded not just in freedom or tolerance but charity. In the Jesuit tradition, the shorthand term for that grounding is “the Presupposition.” St. Ignatius writes in the Spiritual Exercises, “it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor's statement than to condemn it.” Presupposing another’s good intentions does not mean papering over real disagreements. It does mean that in any situation one’s opponent is more than the sum of his or her beliefs.
“Check your privilege” is a common refrain in the discourse of identity politics today. Those demanding ideologically “safe spaces” surely realize what a privilege it is to live in a country where difference and injustice can be overcome without resorting to violence. But it is a privilege we risk losing if we are unwilling to see our fellow citizens as worthy of our consideration.