Story posted May 24, 2008
Striving for Intellectual Tolerance: A Challenge to Graduates
By Nathan R. Chaffetz '08
Class of 1868 Prize Winner
May 24, 2008
Representative Cain, Honorands, Mr. Small, President Mills, members of the College and Guests,
It is an honor to give my address to you all, and I thank the awards committee for giving me this opportunity. And although today is a day when we should congratulate each other for our accomplishments, I will speak about a way that we can better ourselves. As President Mills mentioned, for the past year I hosted an editorial segment called "The Bowdoin Reality Check." The segment was broadcast during the weekly news program on Bowdoin's cable television station. I loved working on these segments, and I think that, like almost every student graduating today, my Bowdoin experience was shaped as much by a favorite "extracurricular" activity as by my coursework.
I chose topics for the weekly "Reality Check" that were designed to pierce the infamous "Bowdoin bubble." In order to do that, I often took a perspective that differed from the standard college student orthodoxy on a given issue. For example, one show discussed whether the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade was actually required by the Constitution, or whether it was more of a political decision. I want to assure you all that I did not produce these segments so that I could get a job at Fox News! Believe me, people asked. No, what I wanted to do was to introduce new perspectives. My hope was that my segments would inspire debate and force people to think about why they held certain beliefs so firmly. I knew my shows would create controversy, but what I did not expect, and what was so upsetting to me, was the degree of hostility they sometimes provoked.
At the end of every segment, I encouraged people to e-mail me with their comments and criticisms so I could continue the dialogue. I did get some excellent critiques, but I also received a large number of curse-laden attacks on my character. Now, I'm not just talking about the e-mails I got in response to the piece I did when I gloated about the Giants' Super Bowl victory! I knew what I was in for when I did that show, and I was asking for it! I'm talking about the responses to my more controversial editorials, like the one I did on sweatshops that President Mills mentioned. According to the authors of a few of these emails, the only possible explanation for my different perspective on this topic was that I must secretly want people to starve to death or die in alleyways.
In media we see similar attacks on people's character all the time. All you have to do is turn on shows like The O'Reilly Factor or Lou Dobbs Tonight and watch the talking heads scream at each other. But what disturbs me is that on elite college campuses, where the liberal ideal of intellectual tolerance is supposed to be revered and protected, too often here and across the country, so many students imitate those same intolerant pundits. Some students here and everywhere too often get into the habit of thinking that people who disagree with them are not only wrong or misinformed, but inherently stupid and morally challenged. This trend is especially disturbing, because these same students are likely to have a significant influence in the world. It is important that these future leaders have the wisdom to be tolerant.
But, what do I mean when I say tolerant? To me, the concept of tolerance includes entertaining the possibility of another legitimate viewpoint, even if it challenges our natural inclinations. This is different from what we mean when we urge tolerance for others of different races, religions, ethnicities or sexual orientations. Although much more progress needs to be made on all of these fronts, I do think that most students here have come to understand and believe in the need for that kind of tolerance. Unfortunately, based on my experience, we are not doing nearly as well when it comes to achieving intellectual tolerance.
I'll give you a concrete example. Think for a moment about what it is like to be pro-life at Bowdoin. I happen to be "pro-choice," but I do know "pro-life" students who are keeping their views very quiet. They do so because they fear being ostracized since they do not share the socially acceptable opinion on this issue. These students are actually afraid to share their feelings, but I think we can all agree, fear of voicing a considered and well-founded belief has no place here at Bowdoin. I say well-founded because these students have a principled belief that abortion ends a defenseless life. I think we at Bowdoin should be able to understand that there are good people who hold this view. We should be able to debate this issue in the open without automatically questioning people's motives or ridiculing their character.
Unfortunately, despite being a safe haven of tolerance in many ways, Bowdoin has a "pro-life closet" and it is very hard to come out of it.
The point is simple; fear of voicing ones well-founded opinion, no matter the topic, has no place at Bowdoin.
Tolerance, of course, has its limits. It is very important to know what can't be tolerated. It's not reasonable to expect people to tolerate someone who hates them and wants to destroy them. The ideal of tolerance I'm talking about depends on the underlying assumption that the other person is seeking a good end by another means. It's impossible to maintain that assumption when people are espousing hatred. Nor should people who expressly advocate intolerance have a legitimate claim to tolerance for themselves. I, for one, would not have any problem with students marching to prevent a KKK chapter from forming here at Bowdoin.
But outside of Bowdoin we recently saw an example of why intellectual tolerance is so important to the quality of our political dialogue. When controversial comments given by Senator Barak Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, were first aired, pundits everywhere declared the Obama candidacy to be over, or at least severely wounded. But Senator Obama came back strong with his landmark speech, titled "A More Perfect Union." In it, he made a powerful case for why tolerating the views of his pastor, even though he profoundly disagreed with him, was the right thing to do. He did not do so by trying to soften Reverend Wright's words or make excuses for him.
Unfortunately for Obama, Reverend Wright did not see the virtue of of the "More Perfect Union" speech. The media also could not let this issue alone. Wright's desperation to get more attention and the media's constant need for more material has sabotaged Obama's tolerance effort. It is unclear exactly how the Wright issue will play out in the campaign. However, I do admire Obama for the way he tried to handle the situation. It was the right thing to do.
And I don't mean this to be an Obama-for-President speech, I'm sorry Tavel, I know you would like that. But I do think Senator Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech attempted to raise the level of political dialogue in this country. His speech honored the public by assuming that we can be big enough to accept his explanation of why he tolerates his pastor's views and that we can be relied on not to descend into the hysterical "game over" logic of intolerance. We should work to take this same high-level approach to all debate on our campus and in our community. We need to do this because it is clear that every kind of tolerance will be increasingly necessary in our smaller and more integrated world.
Thomas Friedman describes this new modern world as "flat." The ease of communication and travel, combined with the integration of global markets, makes that an apt description in some ways. However, when it comes to cultural conflict, events in the news every day suggest that Friedman's description is flatly wrong. In the 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington argues that globalization is likely to cause much more confrontation and strife along cultural lines. I believe the world today validates Huntington's 1996 assertion. Increasingly, people everywhere are dealing with individuals who hold values and beliefs different from their own. We know that can be very problematic. I think we would all agree that we need a principled basis for creating a world community made up of many kinds of extremely different people holding fundamentally different views. At the same time we need to be protecting our world from that small minority of people who are aggressively intolerant. We need to learn how to disagree without being so disagreeable.
Our challenge as new graduates will be to help the diverse peoples of the world construct a thriving global economy and a peaceful political framework that fosters mutual development, respects cultural differences and protects the environment we all share. The type of tolerance I have spoken about today will help the world achieve these goals. We need to start here at Bowdoin though. We are not yet as open-minded on religious, social or economic issues as we need to be. The people of the world are for more different from each other than we are at Bowdoin. If we can't accept each other here, how do we expect to bring this mindset to the worldwide stage?
As I already acknowledged, the energy and intelligence of our graduates, the quality of our education and our exceptional character make it likely that we, as a group, will have an impact on the world. I believe that we as individuals — as Bowdoin graduates — can greatly enhance this impact by developing a habit of rigorous intellectual tolerance. We are very good at tolerating people who look different, but we also have to learn to tolerate people who think differently.
My argument is not new to Bowdoin. To me "The Offer of the College" clearly states that being tolerant, in the sense I have described, is a central part of the institution's mission. Fortunately, one of America's greatest thinkers has summed up everything I've said today in one sentence. After a lifetime of bruising political battles, Thomas Jefferson put if this way:
"We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."