The Value of the Debate

In August of 2017, University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Amy Wax published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer discussing what she saw as some of the more concerning issues in America today. She candidly analyzed several arenas of society, touching on topics of race, economic status, gender, and more. The most controversial passage of her article was an observation that some cultures are less able than others to adequately prepare citizens for success in today’s technologically-driven society. This is an indisputable fact of history, a reality of living in a world in which every culture is at a different stage of development. Yet Professor Wax was brutally lambasted with labels like “racist,” “white supremacist,” “xenophobic,” and “hetero-patriarchal.” Her students demanded that she be removed from the classroom, and her colleagues requested that she be removed from academic committees.

One would think, particularly at a prestigious institution like the University of Pennsylvania Law School, that there might be some mature, seasoned minds able to invest in a worthwhile discussion of Professor Wax’s thoughts. However, Professor Wax was not challenged on the substance of her argument; her critics apparently felt that it was adequate to label her and ostracize her in a manner more consistent with a kindergarten playground then an international legal training ground. In an even more astonishing turn of events, her fellow faculty invited the students of the law school to monitor Professor Wax and report any inappropriately biased or insensitive statements. She put it well: “The message was clear: cease the heresy.” Am I really the only one for whom Professor Wax’s story conjures up images of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984?

The set of facts above is troubling, to say the least. Events like these provide us with sobering reminders that we are inching ever closer to a society that determines right and wrong not based on the rule of law but rather on adherence to an unspoken code of acceptability that is defined by the ideology of those who control the code. In today’s America, the elite universities and their liberal ideology are in control of the code.

Their ideology, however, is an exercise in hypocrisy. Take, for example, their definition of tolerance. They readily accuse others of being racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, or anyone of a large assortment of other labels that have become their preferred political weapons. They preach to conservatives, moderates, libertarians, and everyone else that we must tolerate Muslims, immigrants, homosexuals, and pretty much any other kind of marginalized community they can think of. Just how on earth I haven’t been tolerating them by living peacefully alongside them, I have yet to find out. (However, the fact that they can never explain to me exactly how I am being intolerant shows that it is enough for political success for them to simply label me as intolerant). But this definition of tolerance is hypocritical because there are at least two societal groups that are never supposed to be tolerated, according to their creed: conservatives and Christians. According to the code, these two groups are backwards, outdated, hateful, and invalid. This definition of tolerance is therefore intolerant at its very roots.

So how did we get here? What happened to the grand ideals of the Republic? What happened to debate in the public sphere? What happened to mature statesmen who have thick enough skin to tolerate opinions they dislike and engage with those they disagree with? I believe we have gone wrong because we have stopped valuing the debate as an end in itself.

The framers were extremely well read. They were raised on a healthy diet of Greek and Roman classics. They memorized poetry, debated in the style of Socrates, and wrote public speeches. They valued the representative nature of the Republic, as well as the intense participation that it demanded from every citizen. They valued the fact that it would spur citizens to debate in the public sphere. They valued the fact that this debate would sharpen the citizens by exposing them to different viewpoints. In short, they knew that the republic would not just create an excellent society; it would create excellent people. However, they also knew that the Republic could not do this if its citizens stopped valuing the process that is necessary for its existence.

We have now fallen so far that even our prestigious educational institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Law School, do not value the debate. If our law schools (which literally train people how to debate) do not see the value of the debate, then how can we expect everyday Americans to do so as well? The only solution is for this generation to return to the roots of the Republic we live in. This will require rediscovering the timeless values – constitutional, social, and moral – embedded in the maturation process that defines our form of government.

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