Go Forth and Argue

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens was the commencement speaker at the University of Chicago, and he published his speech, Go Forth and Argue.

Arguing may seem like the antithesis of negotiation and mediation.  But it’s not – at least not if we sincerely listen to others with differing views, are open to reconsidering our assumptions and beliefs, and advocate our views respectfully.  This applies both in our private and public lives.  Of course, it’s not always appropriate to listen and argue, as I described here, but normally it is.

Here are excerpts from the speech:

[A] serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge – an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.

To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great:  the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely;  that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly;  that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed.  All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions – and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.

. . .

[Former University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer] created an institutional culture that, as Salman Rushdie once said, serves as a safe space for thought, not a safe space from thought.  And my question to you, both in the audience and on this stage, is whether you will take inspiration from it in your own lives and careers.

I hope you do, whether you choose to lead a private or a public life.  And I hope you do so by writing your own version of “The Joy of Argument” – which is like a similarly titled book from 50 years ago, updated for an era that has become curiously and depressingly afraid of both.  The joy of argument is not about “owning” or “destroying” or otherwise trying to disparage, caricature or humiliate your opponent.  On the contrary, it should be about opposition and mutuality, friction and delight, the loosening of inhibitions and the heightening of concentration, playfulness and seriousness, and, sometimes even, a truly generative act.

. . .

We are going to succeed at [creating institutions in which independent thought and free expression flourish] only when we persuade others, and ourselves, that these things you’ve all been doing at the University of Chicago for the past few years – discussing and debating and interrogating and doubting and laughing and thinking harder and better than you ever did before – aren’t the antithesis of fun.  They are the essence of it.  They make up the uniquely joyful experience of being authentically and expressively and unashamedly yourself and, at the same time, having a form of honest and intimate contact with others who, in their own ways, are being authentically and expressively and unashamedly themselves.

Take a look.

3 thoughts on “Go Forth and Argue”

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Jen.

      Tom Hanks’s speech is great and well worth watching.

      He talks about dangers of undermining truth. Although there is no single truth about many things, he points out many ways to subvert honest conversations about what is true and important.

      I have been planning to write a post, Tom Hanks is a Real Mensch, but haven’t gotten around to it.

      I recently read a collection of short stories he wrote, Uncommon Type. He is a bona fide big shot – and he really cares about and empathetically portrays perspectives of a wide range of people who aren’t. He writes about buddies who are survivors of World War II, actors playing bit parts trying to make it big, a teenage boy discovering that his father is having an affair, small town folks unimpressed by the Big City, and illegal immigrants smuggled into the US from Eastern Europe, among many others.

      Soon after I finished that book, he published The Making of a Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, which just came out. As the title suggests, it tells the story of the making of a movie (though it wouldn’t be my idea of a masterpiece). He not only focuses on the major players – the stars, director, and producer – but he sympathetically profiles a wide range of others, particularly members of the crew and family members. (If you plan to read the book, you might skip the first two chapters and you will get the most important parts of the story. The first two chapters could be short stories.)

      Tom Hanks narrates the audiobooks for both titles, and he is, predictably, fabulous.

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