Mark Kingwell is what is commonly called an intellectual social critic. He has an impressive list of advanced degrees and has published books on difficult topics such as baseball, cocktails and democracy. He’s paid by the taxpayers of Ontario to teach philosophy to their university-going young people. But a recent article in the Globe and Mail, “Don’t bother trying to understand those on the ‘other side’,” suggests his faith in rationality is wearing thin.
Kingwell is clearly vexed by the failure of democracy to silence the speech of those he disagrees with. Extremists such as David Duke and Richard Spencer, and U.S. President Donald Trump are mentioned among those with whom no “rational engagement is possible.”
Kingwell even goes further: “we ought likewise to recognize that most people can’t actually be reasoned with.” Oh sure, people with an opinion might begin with merely interrupting an argument but then, says Kingwell, they could move on to raising their voices and, before you know it, they’re carrying torches in a neo-Nazi parade. Clearly, restrictions are needed.
Freedom of expression, we’re told, won’t produce reasoned outcomes. What’s needed is not just more civility in our public discussions but “curbs on speech,” less trying to understand our opponents and more shutting them up before they’re allowed to say anything.
Since we ban hateful speech already, we should go on to prohibit people with strong feelings from expressing themselves, by insisting on “discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media.” Kingwell even suggests a ban on media panel discussions (which anyone who saw the shameful CBC television coverage of the results of the American election might be tempted to agree with).
Kingwell has clearly let down the side of philosophical debating about differences in this fatuous opinion piece. It’s not the job of philosophers to abandon the marketplace of ideas. In faculty lounges, they might well sneer at the common folk and their crude ways. But they’re still expected to champion the notion of rationality and the production of better ideas to combat the bad ones.
Socrates in the Athenian agora didn’t disdain arguing with the unenlightened. Faced with hecklers, Abraham Lincoln didn’t abandon the fight against slavery with a shrug of his shoulders and a muttered, “Haters are gonna hate.”
In 1927, French philosopher Julien Benda wrote a book called La Trahison des Clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). Benda decried “the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” He castigated European thinkers for abandoning the quest for reason and for using their talents to stoke violent ideologies such as fascism and ultra-nationalism.
With this article, Kingwell has accomplished a new betrayal, turning aside from reason and opting for the repression of ideas that we used to associate only with the enemies of democracy.
Gerry Bowler taught history at the University of Manitoba for 25 years. He is a senior fellow at the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.