Catherine Rampall, of the Washington Post, lists five self-interest-based reasons allegedly liberal college students should listen to speakers who ridicule them to their face or allege blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior. They’re solid, utilitarian reasons, taken right out of Mill’s On Liberty.
- You make a martyr of the protestee;
- You dull your ability to answer the arguments of the protestee;
- You force their ideas underground;
- Your jerkishness drives people from your cause;
- These techniques will be used against you.
This seems to be reasonable strategic advice. I do, however, have two concerns, one broad and one narrow. The broad one concerns the tired narrative that we’re dealing with a real danger to democracy here; the narrow one regards reason #2: the idea that advancing learning objectives requires reciting reasons against the worst possible trollishness.
The broad concern: let’s remember that these are just kids–and a tiny handful of them at that. Kids say and do a lot of misguided things. Sadly, these particular things and these particular kids seem to make the news and then loom large in the minds of scolding commentators at our nation’s flagship newspapers. Have a sense of scale in other words. It’s not like they have managed to outlaw the teaching of basic science.
Second, to repeat something I said the other day (and something you can find discussed more eloquently by others here and here and here), the idea that you are somehow obligated to handle crazy objections can sometimes undermine free inquiry, rather than advance it. Clearly, the people who invite trolls aren’t learning anything–either because they’re too clueless to recognize trolling or, more likely, they just want to troll. Answering trolls, after all, takes up precious time that might be better spent learning about actual views on the table. This goes for everyone.
In the end, of course, strategic considerations might suggest these kids not scream so loud. But then again, they’re kids. They’re only just learning about strategy.