A Feeling Is Not an Argument
By Alex Epstein (Akron Beacon Journal, April 3, 2001; Press of Atlantic City, April 5, 2001)
Over the past two weeks, college students have been denouncing the publication of an ad that opposes "reparations" to blacks in America. Angry Duke students staged a sit-in to demand an apology by the school's newspaper, the Chronicle, for running the ad, "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery are a Bad Idea--And Racist, Too." At the University of Wisconsin, students trashed stacks of the Badger Herald. At Brown University, the entire press run of the Brown Daily Herald--4,000 copies--was stolen.
What justification did these hooligans offer? The students at Brown accused the ad's author, ex-leftist David Horowitz, of issuing "false propaganda." The Duke students' press release claimed that "the ad was not based on factual evidence" and that it "attacks who African Americans are by birth, not any specific political ideologies or choices." Yet none of the protestors provided a single example of factual inaccuracy or racism in the ad--because it contained no such examples.
There were no racial slurs, no made-up facts, no claims of white racial superiority. The ad offered an intellectual case against reparations for slavery. It presented factual evidence and gave reasoned arguments for its viewpoint. It explained why the idea of punishing white individuals who had not been guilty of slavery, and rewarding black individuals who had not been enslaved, was itself pure racism.
What then triggered the students' hostility? The answer came out during the Duke sit-in. "Much of the discussion at the sit-in focused not on the content of the ad," said a news report in the local Durham Herald-Sun, "but on the Chronicle's decision to publish an ad that editors should have known would anger the black community." In other words, the students' attitude was: "If an argument makes us angry, it should not be printed."
At Brown, the students released a statement that said: "The Herald's decision to run the ad . . . was a direct assault on communities of color and their allies at Brown." Since printing the ad involved no physical attack, the claim of "direct assault" can mean only that some feelings were hurt. To the young hoodlums, this justified what they euphemistically called the "necessary removal" of papers.
It is not surprising that some students had their feelings hurt by Horowitz's ad. On campuses where students are routinely taught that blacks are oppressed--that racism is "institutionalized," that they are entitled to be bitter, that they deserve preferential treatment in the form of special admissions and faculty-hiring policies, "cultural centers" and academic majors--is it any wonder that some blacks would feel offended by an ad which proclaimed that today's blacks live in a free country and do not deserve special privileges? And on campuses where students are taught that reason is an illusion--that logic is arbitrary, that emotions are the road to knowledge and that whatever you happen to feel is "true" for you--is it any wonder that they would grant their feelings primacy over the facts?
But merely feeling offended is not evidence as to whether Horowitz's arguments are true or false, racist or colorblind, worthy or unworthy of inclusion in a student newspaper. A feeling is not an argument.
The only proper response to an argument you disagree with is a rational argument of your own. This is the only way for individuals to know which position is true and which is not. This appeal to reason is the only way to settle disagreements.
The protests and the vandalism represent vicious injustices, because the students are trying to silence an opposing view, not with the power of reason but with a gush of emotion. They have provided no refutation of Horowitz's arguments, and have not even grasped the need to do so. To these students, feelings trump any argument, and if they feel strongly enough that someone else's argument is offensive, they can demand that it be forcibly banished from discussion.
If this attitude prevails, then any idea can be silenced and intellectual discourse is finished. What is next? Fundamentalist Christians censoring textbooks that contain the theory of evolution because it is "offensive"? Welfare recipients censoring "offensive" politicians who tell them they should work for a living? Environmentalists censoring "offensive" scientific refutations of their claims about global warming? Remember Galileo?
The college newspapers that printed the ad and stood up to the protestors' irrational demands should be praised for their courage. And the student hooligans, who regard their feelings as a substitute for logic, deserve unequivocal condemnation.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.