By Madeline Orona Burgos
Debate is an event in which we discuss matters with a degree of logic and intellect. But recently, many political debates have become less about the heart of a matter and more about things only tangentially relevant. As a society we struggle to define which issues are important enough to debate, and many use this as an excuse to not push back.
Earlier this month, the issue of deciding who is allowed to participate in society’s debates was questioned when conservative provocateur Steve Bannon was named the headliner for The New Yorker’s annual “Ideas Festival.” For this year’s festival, guests were to converse and be interviewed by publication contributors. Some featured guests rescinded their appearances in response to Bannon’s anticipated appearance. Many expressed their outrage over Bannon even being invited, including author Roxane Gay, whose criticism addresses the bigger picture surrounding Bannon’s invitation in an article for The New York Times.
“[The] intellectual class doesn’t truly understand racism or xenophobia,” Gay said in an article for The New York Times. “They treat it like an intellectual project, where perhaps if we ask ‘the hard question’ and bandy about ‘controversial’ ideas, good work is being done.”
After receiving backlash, editor of The New Yorker David Remnick announced that Bannon would be dropped from the festival. Bannon called Remnick “gutless” for heeding “the howling online mob.”
But how do we address the devil’s advocate? For many, the answer is de-platforming, or denying a figure a platform on which to speak or share ideas. De-platforming has even reached Lewis & Clark student circles. In March 2018, LC Law School students denied conservative speaker Christina Hoff Sommers a platform for academic discourse.
“We live in an age when we have come to an understanding of how power works: those calling for ‘debate’ of marginalized people’s humanity fail to recognize how unevenly political power is able to be wielded,” students said in a statement published before the debate.
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic bemoans that these students cannot declare who can say what and where as they are “cognitively privileged Anglophone Westerners” who do not understand intersectionality or political power. But this ad hominem attack only exposes what he thinks is allowed to be considered “debateable.” What can be taken away from this instance, specifically, is that those protesting gave a clear, concise reason as to why they sought to de-platform Hoff Sommers in the first place. They articulated that Hoff Sommers’ agenda did not align with what they felt was the best interests of their student body. On that basis, they made it clear that if LC is to foster an environment that caters to disenfranchised students, then LC’s campus is not a suitable place for certain speakers or guests. They made it clear that a person’s politics inevitably manifest in how they treat others and made it seem that a person’s humanity and civil rights are not up for debate.
On issues of whether or not police brutality exists, whether or not fascism is wrong and whether or not poor people deserve government aid, there is always a call for discussion on whether or not those concepts are really universally true. Calling for debate on a generally agreed upon subject casts reasonable doubt on concepts that we know have not only been proven but have been ongoing and growing ever greater. It yields nonsensical questions rather than inspiring action to fix a problem. The trap we as a public continually fall into is the immorality of a hard yes or no to these questions, even with concrete evidence of their reality. Nevertheless, we must embrace the radical concept that it is our moral responsibility to definitively answer those same questions. Yes, police brutality exists. Yes, fascism is wrong. Yes, poor people deserve government aid. Hard questions should not be asked to divert resources to semantics. Hard questions should be asked to support one another on a basis of basic empathy and decency.