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ISSUE 117 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/27/2004

Campus discourse lacks civility

By Christian Huebner
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 27, 2004

The following letter is a reply to another student's private correspondence, arguing for pacifism and expressing concern about the climate of political discourse on campus:


Thank you for such a thoughtful and honest email. While I personally disagree with one of your main theses  that of pacifism  I am hopeful in discovering another person concerned with the cynical, polarized, and generally lazy manner in which so much politically-centered discourse takes place at St. Olaf.

First, a brief explanation of where I depart from your own view. It is my guess that very few people in this world like war, the idea of war, or the horrific consequences of war, whether they are a dove or hawk (to use the common, though overly simplified designations). The problem is the world is not perfect. People are not perfect. Sometimes horrific circumstances inevitably demand these kinds of consequences.

History shows that there will always be a number of depraved people willing to disregard human life in ruthless pursuit of their own egotistical ends. We all can name examples in our own and past times.

Or, to complicate the issue, leaders may sometimes wreak terrible destruction out of ignorance or misguided intention. When either of these types of forces become manifest, those who oppose are left with two options: fight or acquiesce. The former leads to the evil which is the murder of innocent life; the latter leads to the evil which is the murder of innocent life. But in fighting lies the possibility that the destructive core of this tragedy may be rooted out and the lives of many saved before his or her evil may be further enacted. This is not a reasonable hope in acquiescing.

Some nations, Switzerland and Costa Rica for example, are pacifist. They occupy a particular place within the global community, and in many cases (though not all  think Swiss bank accounts) are to be commended for their enactment of that role. Fortunately, for their sake and the sake of the world at large, there are also nations willing to bear the cost (in many senses of the word) of maintaining standing armies, hoping not to deploy them but willing to do so for protection from destructive forces that may come (again, think history and think human nature  it is a reasonable possibility to entertain.)

This is far from a comprehensive argument for the necessity of war in times of great evil, but hopefully gives an idea of why a person like myself disagrees with your pacifist stance. I'd be happy to flesh out my thoughts further sometime if you're interested.

Now for where we agree: I too am concerned about the tone of political discourse on campus and in the public forum at large. Tree-huggers and hippies, religious fanatics and bloodthirsty, idiotic warmongers  these are the kinds of stereotypes I see and hear students of all political leanings espousing with disturbing familiarity and militant cynicism. Four recent examples: 1) the self-righteous ridicule (read: name-calling) of George W. Bush's character that rippled through the crowd at the Peace Prize Forum's first Plenary Session any time the word "President" or "presidential" was mentioned  unsubstantiated cheap shots are always easy, especially when you're expecting the crowd to indulge similarly; 2) the posters I saw in the College Republicans office mocking President Clinton's tenure in office (in liar-pants-on-fire red tint of course) and calling for a rifle-scoped Osama bin Laden Dead or Alive  with the "Alive" crossed out; 3) a friend of mine who complained about the "damned conservatives; and finally, 4) an acquaintance who snickered about moronic liberals.

Perhaps we've become so accustomed to the five-second sound-bite opinion that the idea of thoughtful, considerate, and civil discourse is forgotten. Missing most of all in our current habit of polemic is humility, that attribute whereby even with regard to our strongest beliefs, we do not seek to belittle those who disagree, and even acknowledge that since information and opinions are subject to change, we may yet be shown partially or totally wrong. This does not mean we do not act  and act strongly  according to our beliefs, but that we consider carefully the manner in which we act. It's not necessarily what we do, but rather how we do it.

While the polarized reactionist opinionism we have noted may seem dire, I take heart in the fact that you too recognize this trend for what it is. Though we find disagreement between us on specific fundamental doctrine, I believe the concern for civility we share suggests an accordance far more significant. Thank you for your impassioned pursuit of peace in both geopolitics and the public forum. You have certainly encouraged me.

Sincerely, Christian Huebner

Contributing Writer Christian Huebner is a sophomore from Lincoln, Neb. He majors in Philosophy in Creative Literature.

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