Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times is sure to prompt thousands of reactions—some supportive, but most mocking. Those who are horrified by her decision to abandon the atmosphere she described as “The New McCarthyism” will worry about the pervasive popularity of what others call “cancel culture.” Those reveling in Weiss’s self-imposed expulsion will respond that those who embrace a regressive worldview are finally being forced from the spotlight.
Lost in debates over the limits of free speech and the depths of systemic racism is any thoughtful concern about a more basic question: Is there value in grappling with ideas that cut against what you know or believe to be true?
The defining notion of the day, and this is true on both the left and the right, is that progress will be achieved most expeditiously by eviscerating the wider world’s access to ideas beyond a certain perspective. And whether that’s demonstrated in the way President Trump sneers at those who disagree with him or the way those on Twitter tend to label individuals so as to dismiss everything they might say, the problem remains the same. We’re attacking the very element which makes America so exceptional, namely our intellectual diversity.
We all view the nation’s challenges through a different lens. Some put systemic racism and the long, horrific, ongoing legacy of slavery at the center of the narrative. Others worry more centrally about the possibility that hulking government is poised to trample constitutionally protected freedoms. Some fear that a bloated public sector will impoverish us all. Others are more concerned that, without government getting more involved, social mobility will become all but impossible.
The question isn’t really whether any one of these ideas is right. It isn’t even whether those who hold each point of view will be prevented from expressing that idea—the First Amendment protects free speech. Rather the question is whether those who don’t agree will feel any compulsion to grapple with ideas that cut against their own—whether they’ll be intellectually honest enough to consider the possibility that a counterveiling piece of evidence might prompt them to shift their perspective a bit.
If you reject Dr. Anthony Fauci’s expertise because you don’t like his advice, or you dismiss someone online entirely because someone has labeled them a “Karen,” you’re certainly entitled. In a free society, no one can be compelled to engage seriously with ideas that seem, in someone’s personal opinion, ignorant or abhorrent. But just because you aren’t compelled doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway. Conservatives aren’t entitled to a voice at the New York Times. No one has mandated that “anti-racists” have voice in the nation’s most buttoned-up boardrooms. But would both venues benefit from diversity of opinion? The American experience argues, almost without question, yes.
Somehow, over the last several years, we’ve lost the thread in American life that celebrates our intellectual diversity. You see the broad-based embrace of what might be called “doctrinarianism” on both sides. You see it most decidedly in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans preternaturally dismiss one another’s ideas without even considering whether there might be merit. In circumstances where a conservative idea might strengthen a Democratic proposal, or a progressive idea might help a Republican idea succeed, the two sides don’t even talk. That’s a tragedy.
But now that same dismissiveness has become de rigeur in the broader culture as well. It’s certainly true on Twitter, where unwelcome ideas are more often met with eye-rolling emojis and accusations that something is a “bad take” than they are with real intellectual engagement. It’s broadened to include the academic community, where those offering certain ideas often feel badgered. And now it’s come encompass the media.
If you’re cheering Bari Weiss’s departure from the New York Times, ask yourself: What would have prompted her to embrace the ideas you found most objectionable? Is there some way to convince those of her ilk that they’re wrong and you’re right? If you’re convinced that the Trump administration is being maligned and misunderstood, consider: Is there something you could do to convince Trump’s detractors that he has a reasonable point?
The way forward in America today is not to dismiss or siphon off those with differing opinions—but to engage them. The worry we all face in America isn’t that our tribe isn’t winning—no intellectual force will ever win altogether. The problem is that we’re becoming increasingly tribalistic. The current crisis is less about ingrained rights than it is about cultural norms. Diversity is one of America’s great strengths. Given the tenor of the debate today, we’re at risk of squandering it.
Margaret White the executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.