|The Dying Art of Disagreement
| Bret Stephens, a new addition to our columnist ranks, was in Sydney to give a keynote address at the Lowy Institute Media Awards, and we published his comments — which have stirred up much discussion in our Facebook group of the NYTimes Facebook Group (private) and elsewhere. Here’s the gist with a characteristic sweep of history: “Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree. And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.”
This is the text of a lecture Bret Stephens delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday, Sept. 23. The award recognizes excellence in Australian foreign affairs journalism.
Let me begin with thanks to the Lowy Institute for bringing me all the way to Sydney and doing me the honor of hosting me here this evening.
I’m aware of the controversy that has gone with my selection as your speaker. I respect the wishes of the Colvin family and join in honoring Mark Colvin’s memory as a courageous foreign correspondent and an extraordinary writer and broadcaster. And I’d particularly like to thank Michael Fullilove for not rescinding the invitation.
This has become the depressing trend on American university campuses, where the roster of disinvited speakers and forced cancellations includes former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, former Harvard University President Larry Summers, actor Alec Baldwin, human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, DNA co-discoverer James Watson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, filmmaker Michael Moore, conservative Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will and liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen, to name just a few.Continue reading the main story
So illustrious is the list that, on second thought, I’m beginning to regret that you didn’t disinvite me after all.
The title of my talk tonight is “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” This is a subject that is dear to me — literally dear — since disagreement is the way in which I have always earned a living. Disagreement is dear to me, too, because it is the most vital ingredient of any decent society.
To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.
But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.
And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.
This is a puzzle. At least as far as far as the United States is concerned, Americans have rarely disagreed more in recent decades.
We disagree about racial issues, bathroom policies, health care laws, and, of course, the 45th president. We express our disagreements in radio and cable TV rants in ways that are increasingly virulent; street and campus protests that are increasingly violent; and personal conversations that are increasingly embittering.
This is yet another age in
The protesters succeeded in shutting down the lecture. We were forced to move to another site and broadcast our discussion via live stream, while activists who had figured out where we were banged on the windows and set off fire alarms. Afterward, as Dr. Murray and I left the building . . . a mob charged us.
Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm to shield him and to make sure we stayed together, the crowd turned on me. Someone pulled my hair, while others were shoving me. I feared for my life. Once we got into the car, protesters climbed on it, hitting the windows and rocking the vehicle whenever we stopped to avoid harming them. I am still wearing a neck brace, and spent a week in a dark room to recover from a concussion caused by the whiplash.
An earlier version of this article misidentified Charles Murray’s host for his speech at Middlebury College. He was invited by the campus American Enterprise Institute Club and the political science department, not by Prof. Allison Stanger.