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Column: The role of rhetoric at PCU

What are the standards, written and unwritten, that govern debate at Duke? On paper they aren't too bad. Indeed the ACLU would probably step in if they were. It is fairly hard to get slapped with a disciplinary hearing for voicing unpopular views. The unwritten code of conduct, however, and the tacit assumptions shared by a good part of the student body, faculty and administrators are less forgiving, one might even say illiberal.

There is a lot of speech that people don't think should be tolerated, this despite the idolatrous deference those same individuals show to the concept of tolerance. It is this paradox that makes such standards so odious. The very people who consider themselves the avant-garde of free, progressive thinking take the most close-minded and thuggish attitudes towards any person who dares express opinions contrary to their own. This two-faced hypocrisy, so widely shared, creates a campus culture that is truly hostile to a free exchange of ideas and poisonous to Duke's attempt at approaching the status of an institution of higher learning. There are dogmas on this campus, dogmas more sacred to the status quo than any religious orthodoxy, but certainly not as divinely inspired; and the herd of vocal, "free thinking" individuals that espouse these dogmas are not interested in letting the critical dissent of other voices gain any prominence.

Now, certainly, in many corners of this University there is no free thought statute of limitations whatsoever. Students in English 121, "Medieval English Literature to 1500" will spend next semester reading medieval tales and pondering "what our readings might contribute to the study of postcolonialism," according to the online course synopsis. To an admittedly naïve, non-history major like myself this seems a bit like reading Isaac Newton for his thoughts on the Second World War. I'm not contending for a moment that such an academic study shouldn't be allowed, by all means good luck; but if we can read post-colonialism into British literature written a couple of centuries before the empire, why can't we at least consider the possibility that slavery reparations are a bad idea, that a gender task force won't be constructive for the University, that different political orientations shouldn't be discriminated against in the process of student group funding or that diversity may not always be the answer to every problem.

As a Chronicle columnist with my share of unorthodox views, I have had the opportunity to witness illiberal liberalism at work. Reactions to my pieces have provoked some rather hostile responses ranging from ad hominem remarks from other students to shameful admonition from faculty and administrators. Such responses, I admit, did not take me by surprise. What was shocking, rather, was the overwhelming support some of these pieces received from a large portion of the Duke community. Students I did not know, others whom I did but could not imagine had a political bone in their body, faculty, administrators and even some alumni thanked me for defending views that they themselves held. What made this interesting was not simply the unanticipated discovery that some people on this campus agreed with me in siding against the cult of progressive, therapeutic, politically correct liberalism (Foucault might call this the controlling discourse. How is that for diverse thought!), but the fact that neither my supporters nor detractors could believe that the other side could be so wrong. That is to say that many people noted in their criticism or praise that they strongly believed one side or the other. There is an immediate question, then, of what we are to make of the radical disagreements that pervade the fabric of Duke intellectual life. These are differences that are seldom discussed in public, yet which opposing groups hold with great fervor and sincerity. Why is it that we cannot sustain a discussion of these matters in the public square of our academy without being told either that they have already been settled by more enlightened people or that any mention of them is verboten?

That we don't have arguments in public probably makes a lot of people comfortable. Indeed some see this as the triumph of liberalism, that we can all just get along. This aspiration might be appropriate for a vacation resort, for which Duke is often confused, but has no place at an institution that is supposed to develop critical thinking among its members. We inhabit an absolutely naked public square in this regard, which does not tolerate a diversity of opinion while at the same time couching those opinions that do reign supreme in rhetoric of diversity ideals. Duke isn't a place for the free exchange of ideas; regardless of what we mouth in admissions brochures, it just isn't.

There are surely plenty of professors who do not welcome this institutional culture in their classrooms. There are also probably more than a few who are willing to admit what they do is more or less ideological pandering and that they are not interested in toleration but in an agenda. Such people do us a service by their honesty. Even administrators would be hard pressed to argue that they don't have a particular vision of progress in mind. What would be nice, however, is if students, faculty and administrators quit pretending that all controversial issues have been tolerably settled, and, moreover, admit when they do firmly disagree with others that their hallowed god of toleration has been thrown out the window. In the meantime, any students who find themselves at odds with the dominant politics of the University should combat this rhetoric with their own voices, and demonstrate that "free thinking" doesn't mean marching to the self-righteous dictates of the liberal crowd.

Bill English is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


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