As I head out to Aspen tomorrow (to the Ideas Festival), I can’t help worrying that I’m both celebrating and somehow fetishizing the notion of “ideas” – treating them like tasty appetizers rather than the main meal of our daily lives. When we start treating healthy debate as an extracurricular activity (or in this case as a diversion for people wealthy enough to fly to Aspen and spend several days hearing people give talks), I think we might be headed for trouble. All this talk about an Ideas Festival (and, mind you, I’m thrilled to be invited to speak. It’s a huge honor!) reminds me of posters I’ve seen in kids’ classrooms that exhort them to “Use your brain!” Do we need to be reminded to care about these things? Apparently we do.
I’m probably falling into the nostalgia trap again – the one that conveniently filters out all the crummy experiences of earlier generations. (My grandmother once interrupted her husband in the middle of one of his gauzy reminiscences about 1920s Chicago to point out that there was “an awful lot of horse manure in the streets in those days, you know.”) So, take this with a grain of salt. But it’s depressing to see how little reverence we have for the power of words to engage, provoke, and even transform.
I’m bothered by research showing that people’s political views are so entrenched that even when voters are presented with a totally fake political position of their preferred candidate (a position completely at odds with the candidate’s platform, such as a conservative Republican candidate’s support for the use of tax dollars to increase the abortion rate, or a liberal Democratic candidate’s support of harsh penalties to companies that are trying to reduce their carbon imprint), their faith in the candidate doesn’t waver at all.
I’m equally bothered by college students who think that the best way to express their free speech is to suppress the free speech of others. I confess I felt a little bad for some of the students who were behind those petitions to dis-invite various graduation speakesr (Condi Rice, Christine Lagarde, et al). On the one hand, yes, how ridiculous to block your ears – nah, nah, nah, I’m not listening! – but, on the other hand, people of my generation have been harping on these poor kids to take a stand for once, to disconnect the electronics for five minutes and actually listen and engage. So there they go, there trying to make a statement and what do we tell them? Stop being such babies! I love the passion behind these misguided efforts to take a stand. What I would have loved infinitely more would be to see students actually go hear the speech, have a conversation about it, exchange some ideas, maybe get a little hot under the collar, or maybe even exercise a little civil disobedience. But listen. Don’t shut down because it’s too offensive to hear. That’s not protest, it’s just ignorance.
Instead, we have this pervasive fear of ideas. And why should college students embrace healthy debate when the adults around them refuse to do it? Congress? Television pundits? Those are low-hanging fruit. We already know they don’t want to engage in ideas. But what about your neighbors? Your friends and relatives? Most of us apparently don’t even come across people with different ideas any more. And in a 2008 survey, 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats said they would be very upset if their son or daughter married someone from an opposing party. (In 1960, the numbers were only five and four percent, respectively.)
When I taught preschool, I was often amazed by the willingness of young children to listen to and assume the perspective of others. Sometimes they needed coaching to keep their raging ‘id’ in check, but they genuinely wanted to understand and be understood. How ironic that we hear so much about the lack of empathy in children these days. Adults: look in the mirror!