We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861
The Better Angels are back. This time, let us pray, we will embrace Lincoln’s wisdom and stop the polarization that is stifling ideas and expression on campus and spilling over into civil society.
The drumbeat of campus disasters has been so deafening that we are almost numb to it. Yale University’s distinguished faculty members Nicholas and Erika Christakis hounded off campus over an email in which Erika suggested that the University should not regulate Halloween costumes. Charles Murray shouted down at Middlebury College and his interlocutor Professor Allison Stanger badly injured for daring to be part of the conversation. And Middlebury’s coup de grace just this year: Philosopher Ryszard Legutko disinvited by the administration, with the feckless excuse that there might be security concerns. A headline earlier this month about Washington College needs no commentary: “Washington College Cancels Anti-Racist Play Because It Could ‘Potentially Upset’ Some People.” Read and weep.
Outside of campus, civil society fails to inspire much hope. Pundits suggest that the United States may be the most politically divided that it has been since the Civil War, a grim evocation. With an inescapably fierce 2020 election looming and an impeachment trial forthcoming, we need to return to the aspirations that Thomas Jefferson once articulated, now more than ever. “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things … every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
Better Angels is a fast growing, volunteer driven non-profit dedicated to promoting cross-ideological dialogue in all corners of America. The formula is simple: bring liberals and conservatives together to discuss today’s issues. The point is not to change minds, or even to come to a middle ground consensus, but simply to understand each other and to have a civil conversation on a difficult issue. As their mission states, “Instead of asking people to change their minds about key issues, we give all Americans a chance to better understand each other, to absorb the values and experiences that inform our political philosophies, and to ultimately recognize our common humanity.” Once people see that their political adversaries are not evil, but simply have different values or even different means of seeking the same ends, political hostility can give way to mutual recognition of validity or patriotism.
In 2018, Better Angels launched a series of debates on college campuses around the nation. Its positive influence was immediately apparent. During the early phase of the initiative, at a widely publicized Better Angels debate held at American University, several antifa students came into the packed room with intent to protest and disrupt the event—which focused on the topic, “Is Healthcare a Human Right?” After listening to the rich and thoughtful conversation for a while, they left without incident.
This fall, debates were held at University of California—Berkeley and Christopher Newport University. At UC—Berkeley, students and community members discussed the urgent housing and homelessness crisis symbolized by nearby People’s Park; while at Christopher Newport, students grappled with the right to carry assault weapons. On both campuses, students from across the political spectrum were able to take on these powder keg issues, reason together and reach a level of nuanced, civil dialogue that surprised many of them.
After the UC—Berkeley debate, a student representing BridgeUSA, a grassroots organization working to promote ideologically diverse discourse on campus, reported, “I think all of us have identified the same issue, which is this sort of toxic polarization, non-constructive discourse and just screaming at each other … I was really surprised at how honest people were [tonight], how people were able to take specific stances but not make it a point to target individuals.” Meanwhile, a local social activist came looking for an argument, but ended up respectfully participating in the debate. While some students’ yearning for civil discourse is fulfilled by Better Angels, others have discovered an exciting new way to view difference positively.
The very fact that in one instance the venue was Berkeley, in another that antifa was present, should give us pause. In 2017, Berkeley found it necessary to spend $600,000 on security to ensure that political commentator Ben Shapiro could speak without disruption or threat of violence. Better Angels attacks at its root the canard that “speech is violence,” and that antifa and fellow travelers can claim legitimacy when they attempt to silence it with real violence. Better Angels debates are the ultimate answer to the Maoist assertion that power grows through the barrel of a gun. No, enduring power comes from debate, persuasion, and communication.
There have been glorious moments in American higher education when the college campus was, not a “safe space” in its pathetic retreat from intellectual challenge, but a genuine sanctuary for, in the words of Yale’s late professor C. Vann Woodward, “unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” Our campuses should not be viewed as a lost cause. The throngs of students who have attended and participated in Better Angels and BridgeUSA programs are testimony to students’ thirst for discourse. Trustees, administrators, and faculty owe it to this rising generation to oblige them in answering them in this most urgent (and wholesome) need. The rest of us, before spending time with family this holiday season and unleashing a Pandora’s box of hot-button topics, should try to learn from these clear-thinking, visionary students.
Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni