Intolerance of Intolerance

Aug 13 2017

Content of Provost’s speech delivered at the reflective conversations event
11:00 a.m. Saturday, Aug 12, 2017

Before I begin, the events of last night on the lawn compel a comment.  My talk is about Intolerance of Intolerance, and the torches and chants of last night make this point all the more important.  As the Mayor said in a statement this morning, while protesters have a right to free speech, so do I—and I am using it to condemn their behavior in no uncertain terms.  It is stunning to me that post-Hitler and the United States’ Civil Rights Movement, such sentiment still exists.  Racism of course never went away, but it has until recently been less emboldened.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that these racist views are not shared widely and I don’t believe are growing – a few hundred people from across a nation of a few hundred million gathered in a small and progressive community can skew the perception.  My understanding is that every shop in the chamber of commerce of C’ville is displaying a sign today that says if you are not for equality, we are not for you, so let us remember that these are the sentiments of our town.  Finally, let me offer my opinion that this is not an issue of free speech; the protesters of last night were not attempting to communicate but to intimidate.  They will not succeed.

Thank you for coming and welcome.  We have an exciting slate of scholarly presentations on the complex societal conflicts of our time — the perspectives range from documentary film to history and policy, and from conservative to liberal.  These will no doubt help us to understand the world around us better.  I am grateful to the faculty as well as staff and students who have volunteered to share their perspectives with us today.  I look forward to learning from the speakers, to hearing from perspectives both different and similar to my own, and to growing as a result.

For my own contribution, I chose the title…

Intolerance of Intolerance

Do you remember the first time you heard the oxymoron “Never say never”?  For many of us, probably on a grade school playground.

Do you have any other favorite oxymorons? How about “All generalizations are wrong”?

The interesting thing about these two oxymorons is that although they are self-contradictory, they both contain a lot of truth and so are nevertheless useful.

My thesis today is that the defense of our core values – of our University and ourselves—sometimes requires another seeming oxymoron:  Intolerance of Intolerance.

Before explaining what I mean by that, I would like to reflect on the values I am talking about defending:

The most defining and enduring value of a university is Truth – and indeed it has endured – universities are among the three longest-standing institutions in modern society, along with churches and a few wineries that have lasted since almost the middle ages. 

In addition to Truth, there are others:  Protection of Life and Property (sometimes trumping the pursuit of Truth via the Human Subjects Research IRB), and another is Diversity, Inclusion and Equality of Opportunity.

These are actually linked to Truth in an interesting way that I will come to shortly, but before I do –

I would like to excerpt from the provost’s website a statement about the value of diversity.  This statement is the product of several people, including my predecessor John Simon and several of my present team:

Although our commitment to diversity today is more than a product of our history, an awareness of this history makes our commitment particularly compelling. The University aspires to be a place in which all faculty, students, and staff are active participants in its work, where those groups historically excluded from participation in University life are present in numbers that prevent isolation of the spirit and of the mind, and where each individual is conscious of the many ways in which she or he contributes uniquely to the creation and dissemination of knowledge that enhances the well-being of our community, our state, our nation, and the world.

As close to poetry as prose gets.

I promised I would explain how Truth and Diversity come together as related values of a university – and that is because the two together relate to Academic Freedom – a compound value we hold dear – it is a combination of support for Truth and support for dissent (i.e., difference).

If you will allow me a personal sidebar on dissent:  I am an engineer and a scientist – support for dissent is an essential part of the scientific method – that may be surprising to you if you are not in science – even many of us in the field were drawn to the apparent unambiguity of the answers to physics homework problems.  But science at the frontier is not like that.  The scientific method requires challenging hypotheses with tests to see if they fail.  The openness to the possibility of being wrong is essential to progress, and science has never not been wrong in some aspect.  Einstein’s theory of relativity offended the sensibilities of many contemporaries about the nature of time, but Einstein in turn was disturbed by and dissented against the proposed probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics.  He famously remarked that he did not believe that god plays dice with the universe.  But even he eventually had to accept of course that the Schrödinger Equation for probability of certain events fit the data perfectly.  I think it is a nice illustration of how we cannot assume that everything we believe is right, and that we must always be open to new information that comes from other perspectives. 

So back to the question of how we support dissent, and thereby welcome diversity of opinion?  We must insist that other views than our own are heard – even those offensive to our sensibilities.  Now here comes the paradox:  We must speak out against speech or actions that are ad hominem attacks on a person or a class of people.  Why?  Because such speech prevents others voices from being heard.  Thus at times we must be intolerant of intolerance. 

So where does this leave us in the context of the current protests?

First, with regard to the statues – there are many views within the University as to what to do with them, but as a community we seem in agreement on the right of the city government to decide, the right to self-determination without interference, and against the threat to life and property

Second, regarding the alt-right – they are a loose affiliation of many groups, at least some of which profess views of white supremacy, inconsistent with our values as a university and for most of us as individuals.  It is important for us to stand up and show support for all of our community and condemn anything that is said or done that threatens any members of our community and any threat to expectations of equality in all aspects of community life. 

I would like to conclude with some thoughts of the special role of the university and particularly a great public research university in society and conflict. President Sullivan gave the keynote at last year’s AAU meeting.  In it she said that the “Middle is the new high ground”.  This is not a reference to the ideology of middle-of-the-road political views, but to the role of a university in providing a conduit for connecting opposing views in a polarized society. In other words, universities have a special role to play, by creating and ensuring spaces where all views can be expressed, but in a respectful, thoughtful way that encourages discourse rather than conflict.  This is an essential role that universities can play, in addition to the role that our scholarship plays in generating important new insights.  To play this role and to keep the communication conduit open requires us at times to be intolerant of intolerance.