The difference between my protesters and those berating Judge Duncan is this: Mine had not lost sight of the fact that they and I both share a common humanity. Nor had they lost sight of the purpose of public discourse: to persuade opponents to change their views for the better, not to terrify them into silence. Why has this become such a rarity in our modern world? One argument is that we have coddled the younger generation and made them incapable of handling any views with which they disagree.
Many First Things readers are no doubt sadly aware of the disgusting treatment of federal judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School last week. Duncan was visiting campus to give a lecture sponsored by the Stanford Federalist Society. But his talk was disrupted by students who heckled him for his rulings on LGBT issues. Not only was Duncan subject to the now-traditional vile personal abuse from the pampered students who inhabit the lecture rooms of the nation’s most elite institutions, he was also treated to a lecture by the dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion (who else?) on what an evil person he is. While Stanford’s president has since apologized, it remains to be seen if the apology for allowing behavior inconsistent with the school’s policies will lead to the obvious consequence: the firing of the DEI dean for her own bizarre rant. If a senior administrator who so clearly undermines school policy is allowed to continue in office, the apology is meaningless.
Student protests and threats to speakers are not a new thing. There were student strikes at the universities of Oxford and Paris in the thirteenth century. Martin Luther, arriving in Leipzig to debate John Eck in 1519, surrounded himself with an armed cortège of Wittenberg students, anticipating trouble (or perhaps hoping to precipitate such) with the locals. Nineteenth-century Russia witnessed a surge in student radicalism. Dostoevsky’s The Devils provides a literary portrait of such, and the close connection between the term “intelligentsia” and revolutionary politics reflects this period. 1968 was not so much a novelty as a particularly intense example of a tradition. What Judge Duncan experienced at Stanford, while disgusting, is no innovation.
Yet protests do not always need to be obnoxious, like the one at Stanford. Some weeks ago I was myself subject to a protest while speaking at another college. The protesters, upset at my views on LGBT and Pride issues, organized opposition to my presence. But this group was different from the Stanford mob. My protesters attended my lecture, listened politely and even laughed at my jokes, asked some good questions, and then at the end left the lecture theater to hold a gathering elsewhere on campus. At no point did I feel disrespected as a human being. Far from it.