Being ‘intellectually curious’ without being a schmuck

Freedom of speech does not entail, amongst many other things, the right for a dumb idea to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, we are told that we have an obligation to engage with all the opinions we encounter. This is invoked, more often than not, on behalf of the worst arguments. For example, a high school in Cambridge recently asked its students to think of “positive effects of imperialism.” Let’s be clear here: imperialism had no positive effects; robbery is never justified on the grounds that it benefits the perpetrator and, no, Europeans didn’t ‘develop’ the rest of the world while they plundered it. The school defended itself by saying that it is “important that our students learn about varying perspectives so that they can form their own opinions.” Note, however, that understanding the causes and justifications of imperialism does not require you to imagine its “positives.” This awful incident is a byproduct of this exact impulse to assume that every idea is equally worthy. Clearly, that isn’t true, and there is a better way to engage with ideas that aren’t.

“Wait a minute,” you should be asking. “Isn’t the school right to encourage students to have informed opinions? Don’t we have a responsibility to deal with ideas we disagree with?” Yes, we should, and this is where we must talk about the Motte and Bailey, my favorite form of disingenuous argument. It goes something like this: I throw out an unreasonable claim. Perhaps, I say something like ‘your unwillingness to debate me, a climate change denier, shows that you’re not intellectually rigorous.’ Then, when someone points out that, obviously, there is no need to argue with objectively false claims, I come back with “well, isn’t it a good idea to experience a diversity of opinion?” All of a sudden, my original claim sounds less silly. I have spuriously linked a weak argument to a strong one, giving the impression that opposing climate change is synonymous with opposing free thought.

This is how, for example, the Ciceronian Society could justify inviting Hans von Spakovsky to speak last semester. He is one of the key proponents of the voter fraud myth which Republicans use to disenfranchise minorities; as one article by the New Yorker points out, this is a guy who is called a “huckster” by the academics that do study voter fraud, and our tuition paid for him to speak. Why? If I understand correctly, the reason is ‘debate, the free exchange of ideas, discussion of controversial subjects.’ The usual buzzwords. Without a doubt, engaging with this man—in the conventional sense—is a dead end. To treat his ideas as worthy of a debate is to give him too much credit, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, simply because he represents an alternative opinion, is antithetical to a healthy discourse. So what do we do with him? Here, I will propose something rather obvious, but I feel like it needs to be said: we have to rethink what it means to grapple with the ideas we disagree with. 

For starters, and I may have said this in a previous column, we must drop the high school debate mentality that every side of an argument is equally correct, or that the truth necessarily lies ‘somewhere in the middle.’ That is, don’t give undue credit. If we know, for a fact, that climate change denial is incorrect, then there is no reason to pretend it’s debatable. We can simply say that “this idea has been disproven, end of discussion.” If somebody is arguing for something racist, like trying to say that imperialism had “good parts,” you don’t have to cede any rhetorical ground to them. It is not a sign of intellectual rigor, or ability to engage with others, when one says “well, maybe imperialism does have its positives, seeing as someone’s arguing for it.” Really, it signifies a lacking capacity for critical thought—it is painfully childish to insist that all ideas can coexist. In many cases, they simply cannot.

Then, once we’ve learned to stop giving credit to bad ideas, the question remains: how do we talk about them? I will be the first to admit, and readily so, that you should not dogmatically oppose ideas that you don’t like. It is pretty arrogant to assume that you’ve found the perfect set of opinions. Instead, you need to be able to justify why you’re rejecting an idea, wholesale or otherwise. To choose an extreme example, I will gladly tell anybody who wants to deny the Holocaust that they are malicious, stupid, or both, and I will never entertain their ideas. I am also comfortable explaining where that stance comes from, namely: mountains of evidence compiled over decades, and an understanding of the reasons why one would try to argue against that mountain in the first place—antisemitism, more often than not. When I encounter some Holocaust denial or, more commonly, revisionism, I call it out and move on with my life. However, without a robust explanation for why you won’t debate an awful idea—without an ability to express why you believe the opposite—you’re liable to fall for it eventually. After all, these evil ideas have devoted, and sometimes charismatic, spokespeople, and they’re not opposed to manipulation. People fall for these actors because, more often than not, their previous beliefs weren’t especially grounded. They were vulnerable to a skilled manipulator; it’s like that old saying: believe nothing and you’ll fall for anything. 

So step one is to learn that ideas do not need to be given credit, and step two is to recognize why certain ideas are beyond debating for you. Then, step three is to approach any discussion as an opportunity to learn—this is how you ensure that you’re still engaging with ideas that are difficult. 

What does that look like? If someone says something you disagree with, and you don’t have a sound reason to reject their claim, ask them clarifying questions. Help them give you the strongest argument for their position, and then evaluate it. After your discussion, research the claims that still trouble you—see what experts say. To be honest, you will be disappointed by their arguments, more often than not, and that’s fine. If you can identify the reasons why you find an idea interesting, and why you disagree with it, you will become a better thinker. This is distinct from trying to ‘synthesize’ opposing ideas with your own. You can accept as little or as much of someone’s perspective as you care to, simply ensure that you have a good reason to. By the same token, you can discard your own ideas if you encounter better ones. Just remember that you decide which ideas deserve to be heard out. You set the parameters for what is and isn’t debatable, and it’s your responsibility to make that framework as robust as possible.

Ultimately, nobody has a perfect understanding of the world and, in the hopes of approaching that ideal, we have an obligation to constantly challenge our views. What we seem to have lost sight of, unfortunately, is what that actually means. Perhaps I haven’t suggested the most foolproof method for evaluating new ideas, and I’m welcome to new perspectives, but it’s better than being a rube. It’s better than letting hucksters, racists, and every other breed of malicious actors hijack the discourse, hiding behind a worthy goal. It’s also better than the most intuitive pushback to this disingenuous tactic: rejecting intellectual curiosity because the wrong people invoke it so often. As Duke students, it’s incumbent on us to seek new ideas. To do that responsibly, first recognize that there’s nothing noble about compromise for its own sake.

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

Dan Reznichenko | Opinion Managing Editor

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity junior and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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