No Debate Without Defiance

Disruptive protests are a catalyst, rather than an impediment, to meaningful debates.

By Matthew Andersson

After garnering national media coverage for his threat to vomit on incoming press secretary Sean Spicer at an Institute of Politics event, UChicago fourth-year Jake Bittle was invited on Tucker Carlson Tonight to clarify his beliefs. While one may disagree with Bittle’s political views and choice of language, he articulated a very important point in his Fox News interview that was largely lost on the host. Much consternation arose over obvious hyperbole in Bittle’s various writings concerning the Trump administration and the obviously controversial Spicer. Bittle clearly rejects Trump's general political platform, and used provocative language to express that rejection, as well as to signal his readiness to mobilize others.

He made a far more profound point, however, that kept flying over Tucker Carlson’s head: A university is a highly organized corporate institution that sustains numerous formal barriers to meaningfully challenge establishment representatives, let alone allow students to gain any kind of equal footing in a university-sponsored speaker venue. Universities do indeed, as Bittle said, “sanitize” debate; and perhaps somewhat ironically, tacitly validate and shield visiting speakers. It may seem surprising that students, whether in the college or the professional schools, can be well-informed and more emotionally poised to express their intuitive, instinctive reactions to what are often highly corrupted or compromised guests. There is much wisdom in students that can be thoughtlessly dismissed in university or corporate hierarchies where titles, and perhaps political power, are so faithfully coveted and protected.

Tucker Carlson suggested that a more civilized, formal debating approach would yield better results. But he knows as well as anyone that the preponderance of institutional college decorum does not allow students to meaningfully challenge speakers, outside of a limited and quickly forgotten comment. In matters of such emotional and ideological weight as national politics, often a disruptive, insistent, and memorable challenge not only vividly communicates an opposing viewpoint, but also galvanizes an audience into more critical thinking and a less guarded response. In these cases, real learning can take place as emotional content is introduced or heightened, and with it, deeper convictions.

Carlson, somewhat hypocritically, was a beneficiary of that tradition: as a history undergraduate at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he was exposed (as I was) to the influences of that department’s most notorious and revered professor, Jack Chatfield, who counseled an invigorating aggressiveness toward received opinion, establishment actors, or authority figures presented as experts. Chatfield was famous for nearly inciting a riot at speaker events and seminars, while also marshaling his facts in an organized manner. Speakers (or more cautious students or administrators) rarely left an event without memorable inspiration, and more often, with decisive reconsideration of their assumptions.

Sadly, on many college campuses across the country, such methods and freedoms are under constant assault or institutional dampening. With so many behavioral reinforcement factors—grades, degrees, careers, and recommendations—hanging over the heads of students, some healthy defiance is surely one of the most liberating skills any student can learn (and one indicative of leadership). As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Bittle’s instincts came across as genuine. They might serve as a healthy expression and vital reminder of the scope and generosity of a more resilient “Chicago School.”

Matthew Andersson is an alumnus of the Booth School (M.B.A. ’96).