Recently, I was in New York City attending a conference concerning the preservation of open inquiry, constructive disagreement and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses through an organization called Heterodox Academy (HxA).
In terms of rhetoric, we are in the age of walking on eggshells, i.e. a constant worry and concern about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time regardless of intention, however honorable that intention may be. HxA is therefore a welcomed and much needed reprieve for those who like to critically examine issues and are concerned with the free expression of both actual ideas while not assuming ill intention behind opposing ones.
It would seem, from my experience, that HxA exists in part to preserve the right to risk cracking some fragile eggs.
If one is into constructive disagreement, this conference is the mecca of all meccas. If you are not, then names like hard-hitting-shell-crackers Jonathon Haidt (“The Coddling of the American Mind”), Bret Weinstein (former Evergreen State biology professor famously forced to resign for not joining a campus activity), Lenore Skenazy (“Free Range Parenting” and famously noteworthy for allowing her then 9-year-old son to ride the subway to work), and Nick Gillespie (Editor-at-large, “Reason” magazine who Robert Draper in The New York Times Magazine writes, “Nick Gillespie is to libertarianism what Lou Reed is to rock ‘n’ roll, the quintessence of its outlaw spirit.”), among others, will mean nothing to you…much like if you were to read me a list of superstar European soccer players. (Forgive me, I am writing this from London so the futbol analogy at this moment –during the women’s world cup- seems apropos).
As for me? Just a little slice of heaven as I am not just listening to these people, I am having lunch and conversing with them, in some cases, over adult beverages. I am learning that really smart egg crackers can be super friendly egg crackers.
And speaking of smart…I like smart. I love experts in their field. In fact, I like people who are a whole lot more informed than I. As a professor, I am in the continual practice of teaching and lecture, while attempting to reach students at their level. So, to be perfectly understood–and simultaneously stretch to understand in conversation–is very appealing and a position I do not frequently encounter.
It is not only the conference attendees’ intelligence that is so extremely appealing, it is the notion that we are on the same page, a page that attempts to understand and improve our cultural dialogue and examine how to become both more engaged in civil argument. All the while, with a commitment not to finding what is “right,” rather, discussing why something may be right, or wrong, or neither, or both, today, yet may not be so tomorrow
However, to journal about my experience at this conference is not the foundation for this blog entry. Rather, it is to contrast this experience with its interplay on the culture at large.
Let’s get cracking.
When I joined this organization and subsequently attended the conference, I had a notion that such a place may be an unintended enclave of somewhat frustrated conservatives; frustrated due to both the growing presence of the hyper ever-increasing forced censorship of the progressive far left as well as the perceived intellectual shortcomings of the current powerful far right. Surely there must be room for reasonable people with a somewhat conservative leaning to find solace? Enter Heterodox Academy.
In conversations with some at the conference, I found that an impetus to many of the sentiments expressed were in direct opposing response to contemporary progressive ideas such as virtue signaling, call out culture, and “microaggressions.” I am not suggesting that HxA takes an official position on any of these matters, in fact I believe they must not since some of these notions were spoken of in a positive light by panelists. HxA clearly states that they are a non-partisan collaborative.
What I am suggesting is that in spite of what any official position may be, HxA attracts a right leaning audience, disgusted with what they perceive to be a progressive left that is spiraling out of control, leading culture into an anesthetized state of silence for fear of offending…anyone at any time over nearly anything.
I sense that a good amount of these members may have voted for Trump, if they voted at all (in conversation, I found many that sat out the 2016 election) not for his snarky style, his bombastic personality, his hurtful rhetoric, or seemingly lack of thoughtfulness; rather they voted philosophically conservative for fear that the left has gotten so out of control they pose a far greater threat to our country’s welfare than a one-man-crazy-show could possibly pose.
Of course, I realize I am projecting my personal perceptions in attempting to make sense of a newfound organization and its direction, yet I had no trouble finding simpatico voices in my frustration of the growing amount of self-censorship I must apply in the contemporary college classroom due to a growing eggshell-like sensitivity: a sensitivity I have not experienced in my thirty plus years of teaching, until now.
Perhaps I am guilty of prioritizing the values of free expression and free speech over many others in the world of important ethical principles. Though in a world where a plethora of needed humanitarian values are needed to thrive, such as justice, fairness, and authority just to name a few, we all must decide for ourselves which take priority in the moral execution of our lives.Still I find Jimmy in tension. Nearly all cultural evolution has been met with resistance from the “back in our day” crowd. If things are indeed evolving into a heightened sense of profound accommodation for all, I want to be a part of it. However, from where I sit, it seems things have just simply gone too far, beyond the point of reason. Yet, have not nearly all trends seemed unreasonable when first practiced? My 85-year-old father still refuses to wear his seat belt stating, “I’ll be damned if the government tells me how I should drive!”
That said, my partner Rene’ writes for a local publication. As she was writing about the notion of celebrating the fourth of July, she sadly lamented to me that she had to stop writing as she was afraid that a couple of her favorable opinions about the US would be met with resistance from not only her clientele, but her own friends.
Is this really what we want?
I truly want to understand and embrace sensibilities when justified and warranted. I really, really do. Yet until I hear reasonable arguments, that I hope to hear from organizations like the Heterodox Academy, I must embrace a line of logic that does not threaten a free expressing democracy.
We are in the season of hypersensitivity and walking on eggshells. Ironically, all eggshells are designed to eventually be cracked, either to give birth to new life or sustain existing life. An eggshell not cracked is, well, a completely worthless egg.
Perhaps such conferences will inspire the cultural dialogue to focus not on the cracking of the eggshell, rather the new life that emerges once the breaking of it is complete. Good ideas are typically the result of the trial and error of some bad ones in order to evolve to better cultural practices. We must preserve the right for a diverse marketplace of ideas, as the evolution of our humanity depends on it.
And some eggs may be cracked along the way. We have no choice.