‘Civil Discourse’ is Easy: Just Agree With Liberal Profs

By Tom Gilson Published on December 17, 2017

Professors Michael C. Behrent and Jay M. Smith, writing for The Herald-Sun in Durham, NC, are unhappy that the University of North Carolina Board of Governors will soon be hearing from Robert P. George.

The board votes soon on implementing a 2016 North Carolina law regarding campus free speech. The law requires university administrators to “adopt an attitude of ‘institutional neutrality regarding political and social issues.’” Or that’s how Behrent and Smith put it, at any rate.

George, who is a professor at Princeton University, is scheduled to address the board on the related topic of civil discourse. Behrent and Smith have a problem with that. “The board would have you believe that George is a lifelong advocate for civil discussion.” In fact he’s “a partisan activist” instead, they say. Apparently Behrent and Smith think that if you’re partisan, you can’t be civil.

Apparently Behrent and Smith think that if you’re partisan, you can’t be civil.

Indeed, we’ve seen something like that played out many times lately, on campus after campus. Students, staff and faculty have rudely — sometimes violently — shouted down conservative speakers. So maybe some academics really do believe partisan activism equals uncivil behavior. Still, it’s jarring to see these two imply it so clearly in print. 

Civil Discourse Is Impossible for Conservatives?

But of course it’s quite possible to stand for a cause in a civil manner.  Just watch Robert George. Except it’s not clear that for Behrent and Smith, civil discourse really means acting in a civil manner. Their definition doesn’t appear to be about how you speak, but what you say. And George says the wrong things.

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He supports “hyper-partisan” causes, for one thing, starting with (for shame!) Catholics practicing Catholic doctrine within their own Catholic Church. They word that complaint differently, of course. “He once helped craft a letter suggesting that Catholics who support legal abortion should be denied communion.” But the difference is mere detail.

George disagrees with them on marriage, morality and civil disobedience as well. And because he disagrees, it seems, he can’t speak on how to disagree civilly. Which seems to mean that you can’t disagree with them civilly unless you agree with them.

Civility Means Agreeing With Them

In fact it would be easy to conclude that for Behrent and Smith, civil discourse means agreeing with them, and agreeing with them means you’re being civil, no matter how you behave. In fact their own behavior leaves a lot to be desired. For example:

They deny that a conservative like George can speak credibly about civil behavior — just because of his beliefs. That’s stereotyping conservatives.

They misrepresent the North Carolina Restore Campus Free Speech Act. It mentions an “attitude of neutrality,” but nowhere does it require it, as they say it does. That’s distorting relevant facts.

Stereotyping, distorting, misleading, misrepresenting — Behrent and Smith seem to think all that’s okay.

They misrepresent the Act again, right at the pivot point of their argument. “The board and the legislature are, in this respect, socialists,” they say, “precisely in the sense that the Right uses the term. In attempting to inject the ‘correct’ balance of opinion into university life, they are engaging in the kind of social engineering conservatives have always denounced.”

Actually, in spite of the quotation marks, the word “correct” doesn’t appear in the legislation. Neither does “balance.” Neither does “opinion,” except once. “It is not the proper role of any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including… ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” That’s also distorting the facts, and it’s misleading readers.

They accuse “intellectuals like George” of “subscrib[ing] to the troubling notion that every social institution must be ideologically balanced.” That statement is simply false — and disturbingly so. It turns conservative opinion completely on its head. That’s seriously misrepresenting their opponents.

How To Be Civil Without Being Civil

Stereotyping, distorting, misleading, misrepresenting — Behrent and Smith seem to think all that’s okay. They do it all — in an editorial on civil discourse, no less. And maybe it is okay, if they can get away with defining civil discourse simply as discourse they agree with.

Which makes their editorial’s closing sentence almost too deliciously ironic: “When it comes to expressing your beliefs,” they say, “the board knows what’s best for you.” When it comes to civil discourse, Behrent and Smith will tell you which beliefs you must express.

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