The Imperative to Listen04-09-2023
When the Federalist Society at Stanford Law School invited a Federal judge appointed by Donald Trump, some students protested and successfully shut down the talk by persistent heckling. The students at Stanford were particularly upset that the Judge, Kyle Duncan, had refused to refer to a transgender woman by her preferred pronouns. A Stanford Dean poured fuel on the fire, at once defending the right of free speech while asking if free speech was worth the pain and uneasiness the judge’s remarks would cause students. Stanford apologized to Judge Duncan, but that was seen to be inadequate. Then Stanford Dean Jenny Martinez issued a 10 page rebuke of the students and defense of free speech as essential to a law school education. Pamela Paul, however, offers the best account of why it is important for law schools and other schools to continue to invite speakers who offer views deeply at odds with the students and faculty. Paul rightly argues that the real value is not simply the freedom to speak but the imperative to listen.
The administrator was asking, essentially: Is it worth letting someone speak if some students consider that person’s views objectionable, even abhorrent? But another question to ask is: What gets lost if we don’t let that person speak?
For one thing, the Federalist Society members who invited Duncan, a Trump appointee, missed hearing from a like-minded judge. Duncan, who says he speaks at law schools in part so he can hear from students, lost out as well.
But the protesters themselves suffered the greatest loss. Unleashing on Duncan may have felt good in the way we Brown students felt good asking our “tough” questions of Scalia. But whereas we got to hear the answers, the Stanford Law School students did not. It isn’t enough to challenge someone unless you’re willing to be challenged back. Scalia’s answers may not have made us feel especially good, emotionally or intellectually. They did, however, teach us the value of listening and motivate us to be smarter.
No matter how charismatic Scalia had been, I still didn’t think him a force for good, which made it easier for me to devalue his arguments. But with time, I realized most people don’t divide neatly into heroes and villains. What happens if you assume your political opponent isn’t evil — if you even know that he’s not?