Most of the UChicago student body did not attend the recent announcement that there will soon be a new Institute for Politics. Those of us who did heard David Axelrod, quite possibly one of the toughest political operatives of his generation, wax poetic about the discourse that occurs at this University. This echoed remarks by the always entertaining Dean Boyer, who spoke of the University’s long and storied commitment to public service. Fittingly, we were also told that the Harris School was founded in order to introduce an academic model to the world of public policy.
Following the announcement, the panelists—Alex Castellanos, David Brooks, Rachel Maddow, Rahm Emanuel, and moderator George Stephanopoulos—assembled on stage for what Axelrod, the future director of the Institute for Politics, described as a preview of what the Institute would be doing come 2013.
After Castellanos fielded the first question, Stephanopoulos gestured to the Mayor, who got about half a syllable out of his mouth before three Occupy activists stood and began shouting “Mic Check.” These three activists were directly in front and to the left of me in the front far-left of the balcony. Within 20 seconds, they were asked, respectfully, to sit down by staff. They continued for over two minutes, with at least 10 requests to stop by I-House staff. Once they stopped, they left the event.
I have never been as embarrassed to call myself a UChicago student as I was in those two or so minutes. (This does not even account for the fact I was at that point getting glares from several of the most eminent political figures in the country from 100 yards out.)
The University is founded on the idea of scholarly disagreement, on the notion that I may hate everything you stand for and think you are wrong in every way possible, but will nonetheless respect your right to your opinion and will engage in debate with you. In fact, Dean Boyer and the other speakers touched on this idea during the introduction, and Axelrod answered a question about it in the press Q&A. The Occupy movement’s trend of interrupting or causing the cancellation of events (see: the Rice-Paulson fiasco of last quarter) is directly opposed to the University’s mission.
Occupy: Instead of interrupting Rahm, how about asking him a tough question during the event? Or writing letters and getting op-eds published in this paper, the Tribune, and the Sun-Times? How about calling the Mayor’s office every day? How about getting in touch with your alderman’s office and seeing what he or she can do? Any of these actions would effect change far more than the outburst at the panel. Even if the Occupy movement insisted on demonstrating today, its members should not have interrupted the panel; they could have instead organized somewhere near I-House. The Occupy movement should be protesting in order to encourage constructive discourse, not to shut it down.
For the new Institute, and in fact the entire University, to be successful, we must all be able to at least listen to those whose ideas or policies we disagree with. These disruptive protest tactics are remarkably useless in further debate; in fact, they stand to discourage it.
Will the Institute for Politics be able to attract such august speakers as the ones for its inaugural panel if invitees can only expect to be interrupted by protesters? Will the University have to take to screening the guest lists for these events in order to prevent such outbursts? Who knows? But if this trend continues, it does not bode well for anyone. A lack of respect for argument itself stands to destroy what makes this university great.
By no means am I suggesting that Occupy has no right to protest. In fact, its focus on income inequality was one of the more promising political developments of 2011. Its members undoubtedly have the complete right to protest. However, I have never seen Occupy try to engage those it opposes on a scholarly level. I have only seen attempts to disrupt their opponents’ events and speeches. Occupy should be more actively trying to change things, perhaps by getting in touch with elected officials or organizing a caucus. Simply being disruptive (as well as rude and disrespectful, in my opinion) without providing any substantive additions to discourse is, frankly, unproductive, and as I stated earlier, contrary to the University’s aims.
However, the Occupy movement isn’t alone in being guilty of these indecencies. Is there a single one of us who has never been too quick to judgment or dismissed an argument simply because we did not care for the person making it? I think not. The ideals of respectful discourse the University embodies would do well to be spread far and wide.
In order to carry on the University’s reputation of excellence, we must make it a place where argument flourishes. Those who attempt to shut down discourse do untold harm to our University.
Hunter Owens is a first-year in the College.