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Wente vs. Saurette

The Coulter debate: Can you be too incendiary? Add to ...

Moreover, I am certainly not one to argue that we should judge the appropriateness of speech on the basis of whether it's "polite" or "nice." And I certainly don't agree with the idea that we have a right not to be offended. The ideal of agonistic respectfulness that I mentioned earlier is quite different than arguing that we all just have to get along or that we have to tone everything down all the time.

I would like to invite my fellow citizens to pause, once in a while, to consider that we should sometimes turn down the volume so that we listen to others with as much intensity as we speak.

I suspect that if we were to take the time to explore what students were really worried about when they talked about a "safe" campus, a more sophisticated argument would emerge. I suspect anyway, that their strongest argument would not be the belief that they are individually entitled to face only those ideas that have been reduced to the intellectual equivalent of pablum or easy-listening muzak. Rather, I imagine that their argument would turn on the idea that the stereotypes used by Coulter lead to some sort of larger "harm" - e.g. by encouraging people to accept certain negative stereotypes which, presumably, lead to concrete actions of unjustifiably discrimination. Whether such an assertion about the effects of Coulter's speech is valid opens up another huge debate, one that, like Coulter's claim that the Provost's letter should be viewed as "harming" her ability to speak, deserves much more time and space to unpack and evaluate than we have here. Suffice it to say that we could make this a weekly discussion for several months to make sense of all of these claims.

So perhaps I'll end by focusing on the issue that my op ed focused on: what of the role of polemics in public debate, especially around emotional issues?

I, for one, would never say that we should 'ban' polemics or polemicists or suggest that we shouldn't listen to polemics. I will actually happily acknowledge that polemics can play a role in public and private life. It can help challenge orthodoxies. It can sometimes clarify an issue by simplifying it. It can get people engaged and motivated. It can make us laugh. It certainly also sells a lot of books.

That said, I think we also have to recognize that polemics also have some very significant disadvantages and costs as a model of public debate. It often intensifies divisions in society without good reason; it ramps up (usually negative) emotions and short circuits - both in terms of time and in terms of willingness - more thoughtful reflection; and it makes it really difficult to really listen to other ideas and try to understand why people might believe them. And this, I think, suggests that as a society, we should be careful and prudent about how often and where we encourage polemics. And I would like to invite my fellow citizens to pause, once in a while, to consider that we should sometimes turn down the volume so that we listen to others with as much intensity as we speak.

And I'm hopeful that this is possible. Because although the polemicists and their inflamed followers may generate the most noise and smoke at moments, the vast majority of Canadians do not share their vision of how debate should be undertaken. If anything could prove that, it was not only the fact that there was no violence at Coulter's talk in Ottawa (given that the most anger expressed was by people wanting to get in but weren't able to due to poor logistics). It was also proved by the fact that the vast, vast majority of people who showed up for the talk - whether they agreed or disagreed with Coulter - waited patiently in line for hours and wanted nothing more than to simply hear her speak.

Margaret - it's been a pleasure. Till next time,

Cheers, Paul

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