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An Open Letter Addressing the May 3rd Living Room Conversation, From Roger Berkowitz, Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

To The Campus Community

Later today, the Hannah Arendt Center will host a Public Living Room Conversation on the topic of Crossing the Divide. The Arendt Center’s Public Living Room Conversation series is inspired by Arendt’s understanding of the value of plurality. It is an effort to bring the world we share with others to visibility. Each of us sees the world, understands it, and experiences it from our own unique perspectives. Politics, for Arendt, is the exercise in expanding our perspective and learning to see the world from as many different viewpoints as possible. In the end, we all must make our own judgments about what we believe and what we hold to be true and just. But democratic politics is based on the effort to build a common world based on persuasion rather than violence. The Public Living Room Conversation series is one small effort to manifest Arendt’s thought that free speech and listening to others can help bring about a shared and common world.

The event is sold out. Nearly 250 students and dozens of faculty and staff have registered to attend the discussion. I am truly sorry we cannot accommodate everyone. For those who could not get tickets, there will be a live stream available at 6 pm in Olin LC 115.

Many of you know that there have been questions about the suitability of one of the panelists. I have received dozens and dozens of emails complaining about the decision to invite Lucian Wintrich (Bard 2012). And while I have also heard from people who are supportive of Mr. Wintrich speaking at Bard, I am acutely aware of the fact that for some his presence on campus is felt to be harmful.

I have tried to answer each email I have received and I also have spoken at length with approximately 100 students individually and in small groups. I have found that talking to students has been deeply productive and I invite those of you who have questions about why the Arendt Center included Mr. Wintrich on this panel to come and talk with me. But I realize that I cannot speak individually with everyone in our community.

For that reason, I want to write to the campus community and say clearly that I do understand the concerns that have been expressed about Mr. Wintrich. His approach to journalism, which is intentionally to undermine the institution of journalism, is one that I, as someone who studies political theory and totalitarianism, find politically dangerous. His willingness to use highly provocative humor has the potential to legitimate stereotypes and reinforce institutional discrimination. His mode of argument is one I find unattractive and potentially undermining of democracy.

At the same time his argumentative style has been, on a basic level, effective and one that we can understand to be—whether I like it or not—increasingly mainstream. Mr. Wintrich has White House Press credentials. This means he is one of the reporters in the country who has been given privileged access to the President of the United States. This makes Mr. Wintrich a successful representative of a journalistic approach that has become common in the United States. His style of argument—in which language is not treated with care or seriousness, —is not that different from the one used by the President of the United States.

I fully understand that many at Bard want to dismiss Mr. Wintrich as someone who spews hate. There is no question that he revels in saying things that are offensive and insulting. That he does so as part of a political act and thus as a performative argument gives little solace to those who feel themselves targeted by such rhetoric. And given a political climate in which more than 50 years of progress in civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and other social justice movements are in danger of being rolled back, there is a desire amongst many who deeply value these progressive achievements to build protective walls around our communities.

But this is to overlook the basic fact that the push to roll back the liberal victories of the last half century is already well underway. This is true not only here in the United States, but in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere. At some point those who would censor the representatives of what is now undeniably a new and radical right-wing counter-cultural movement need to face the fact that the reaction against modern liberalism is not simply the work of isolated haters; rather, it is a profound movement that has captured a meaningful part of the global zeitgeist.

No doubt much of what is said by those in the emergent right-wing-counter-culture is radical, dangerous, and offensive; and yet, it is also true that much of what is said is convincing to many. The movement pushing back against the progressive liberalism of the late 20th century is certainly more influential amongst a more diverse and educated population than some want to believe. And it is also true that there are people in the wider Bard community who think that in important respects Mr. Wintrich makes valid points about the overreach of government and the dangers of political correctness—even if they sometimes do not like the way he goes about making his points.

Aside from violence, the only way to respond to a global movement one disagrees with is through persuasive argument. We must always remember that we don’t win an argument when we and our friends are convinced that we are right. We win an argument when we convince those who meaningfully disagree. If we want to change the world, we need to learn how to argue with and persuade others. It is important that as members of an intellectual community we resist the understandable urge to barricade ourselves in comfortable gated communities of liberal purity.

Some students and faculty have argued that it is enough to simply read the writings of the Steve Bannons, the Betsy Devos’s, the Charles Murrays, and the Lucian Wintriches—that offensive opinions can be experienced at arm’s length and kept out of the campus community. But it is not enough to simply read these views (or more frequently to read dismissals of them). A view we disagree with on the internet rarely argues back when we dismiss it. Actually arguing with someone who will respond to our arguments is the only way to truly test our arguments. The practice of arguing with those with whom one disagrees is the best way to learn how to engage actively and effectively in the political life of a citizen. It is the only way to learn our weaknesses and our opponents’ strengths. And, at the very least, it is the only way to discover whether, despite our real differences, we share a common commitment to reason and decency. When I write “only way” in this paragraph, I mean that after a life of watching politics and writing about it, it has been the only way that I have seen that ends up being productive. I ask that you take seriously this point of view and, of course, that you feel free to oppose it—that is to say, that you argue against it, if you disagree.

Most recently, I have heard from students and faculty—especially many in the transgender community—who argue that Mr. Wintrich denies the humanity of trans people and that to bring him to campus would be to legitimate hatred and oppression. I have listened closely to these claims. I won’t claim to understand the struggles and pain of the transgender community. I have no wish to bring hardship to that community and will do everything in my power to ensure that no harm comes to it. As moderator of the panel, I will strive to ensure that the spirit of respect and curiosity that informs the Living Room Conversation model is vigorously adhered to. My hope, all the while, has been to ensure that our community responsibly and powerfully can confront a public figure who has a strange and unjustified degree of power in the country right now.

I am fully aware that some at Bard may find Mr. Wintrich persuasive, in whole or in part. Yet, if we are confident in our arguments, we should welcome the challenge to force Mr. Wintrich to struggle with his shortsightedness. And whether or not we are confident in our arguments, we should welcome the opportunity to hear our arguments challenged. As John Stuart Mill put it, even good ideas wither into “dead beliefs” when they are not openly contested.

Finally, it is my hope that by inviting Mr. Wintrich into our midst, we, as a community, would see that as frightening and objectionable as some of his language can be, he is just an individual, a Bard graduate, and someone whose voice can not only be tolerated, but also can lead to the emergence of an articulate and powerful response. In learning to tolerate and to respond to his voice, there is power: the empowerment of a liberal community that can embrace its plurality and respond effectively through argument and persuasion.

Given the reality of discrimination in our country and on our campuses, some argue that there is no such thing as truly free speech. According to this argument, when we allow views that invalidate the humanity of some people, we create asymmetrical speech situations and thus restrict speech as a public good. Faced with a choice between the values of safety and security on the one hand and the unreachable values of freedom and plurality on the other, some argue that we should sacrifice freedom of speech in the name of safety and security. In other words, to ensure the emotional safety of our communities, academic institutions should censor those whose speech offends.

This is no doubt an argument that has intuitive power. It is undoubtedly true that there is never a level playing field, whether in politics or in science. There is, therefore, no guarantee that truth will win out in a free contest. In that context, we all need to re-think the role of the university and of free speech, and what we mean by free speech, a term that we use reflexively but which we always will do well to think about more deeply.

In writing about free speech, Hannah Arendt defends free speech not on the grounds that free speech will lead to truth; rather, she argues that free speech serves the fundamental political ideal of plurality: “We know from experience,” Arendt argued, “that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.” For Arendt, the freedom of speech means that we will always hear other opinions, other perspectives, and other arguments than our own. As she writes, “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.”

Politics, Arendt argues, is the unity of a plurality. It is the effort of plural and unique people to come together around a commonly shared world. It is only by speaking with each other, by disagreeing with each, and learning to respect each other, that we can discover the common world that makes politics possible.

Living Room Conversations provide an opportunity to see the common world from the perspective of another. They can, therefore, increase understanding, reveal common ground and allow us to discuss possible areas of agreement without sugar-coating or denying our real and intense disagreements. At a time when demonization of political opponents has fractured our society, Living Room Conversations are simple ways to begin exploring what might unite us amidst our differences. Arendt insists that there is no truth in politics because politics depends upon opinions. We can build a common and true world only when we listen to one another and embrace the plurality of being in the world. We have to listen to one another even if we see the world differently because we must share and make the world together.

The Living Room Conversation on May 3, 2017 raises one of the most important questions that concerns our American democracy, how do we reinvigorate our common political community amid widespread feelings of contempt for those whom we find politically offensive? We have invited 6 speakers to the Arendt Center for this public Living Room Conversation. Three are liberals. Three are conservatives. Three are current Bard students. One is a Bard alumnus. One is a Bard Professor. Two are heavily involved in national conservative politics. Four identify as LBGT. Three are deeply committed to liberal political causes. One has been called by the Washington Post the second most conservative man in the world. They come from a wide array of political, religious, professional, racial, sexual, and socio-economic backgrounds. But more important than what divides them is the fact that they all have agreed to engage in a serious, thoughtful, and compassionate discussion about how they can seek common ground with people with whom they deeply disagree.

There are published Guidelines that govern all Living Room Conversations. They read:

Be curious and open to learning.

Conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking. Listen and be open to hearing all points of view. Maintain an attitude of exploration and learning.

Show respect and suspend judgment.

Human beings tend to judge one another; do your best not to. Setting judgments aside opens you up to learning from others and makes them feel respected and appreciated.

Find common ground and appreciate differences.

Look for a common ground you can agree on and appreciate the differences in the beliefs and opinions of others.

Be authentic and welcome that from others.

Share what’s important to you. Speak authentically from your personal experience. Be considerate of others who are doing the same.

Be purposeful and to the point.

Notice if what you are conveying is or is not pertinent to the topic at hand. Be cognizant of making the same point more than once.

Own and guide the conversation.

Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and that of the conversation. Be proactive in getting yourself and others back on track if needed.

It is my job as moderator of the panel tonight to ensure that these guidelines are followed. I am confident that will happen and I ask all of you to help me in keeping our conversation to the high standards of a Living Room Conversation.

I don’t imagine all of you will agree with my arguments, and I believe many of you will remain upset with my decision to hold this Living Room Conversation. I respect your decision to avoid the event, to protest the event, and to ask hard questions of all the speakers at the event. And, as I said earlier, I am always willing to speak with any of you about how best to foster an educational environment that is respectful, thoughtful, and curious.

Roger Berkowitz

Posted on 3 May 2017 | 12:00 pm

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