Letter to the Editor: Bruce's appearance raises questions about civil discourse

To the editor:

In the April 15th issue of The Bucknellian, students affiliated with the BUCC and FLAG&BT, the two student organizations centrally responsible for inviting a crude shock radio jock with a long and documented history of racially offensive rhetoric to campus, defend this action by reference to “the sacred purpose of a university … to encourage … thoughtful, critical and open intellectual discussion.” The heart is in the right place. The facts, alas, are not on their side.

They want to challenge the purportedly “false impression” of Tammy Bruce as an extremist, hate-filled shock jock. Why then do they not address any of the voluminous evidence to that effect? Perhaps because defending the indefensible is hard work, as the Internet is filled with audio of Bruce saying the kind of things that disqualify her from speaking in a place committed to rational and dispassionate debate.

What is perhaps still salvageable from the disaster of Bruce’s invitation is a teachable moment regarding civility, debate, and University culture. One of the most important aspects of contemporary mass media culture is a widely-recognized precipitous drop in the tone and rigor of political debate in radio and television. Over the past several decades, extremist, anti-intellectual and even violent rhetoric once confined to the fringe of the public sphere has become more or less mainstreamed, thanks to the efforts of people like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck, along with the media institutions that provide them a forum. Today’s students have grown up in this world, and the great danger is that, because of that immersion, they are unable to effectively discern what does and does not reach minimal standards of civility and reason in political discussion. Some of my current students were not yet walking when Limbaugh’s venomous, baseless accusations of then-President Clinton helped fuel anger on the extremist right that eventually produced the Oklahoma City bombing.

Students can perhaps be forgiven for being blasé about this toxic environment into which they were thrown at birth. But this does not mean the University is required to surrender to the abysmal leveling of discourse. Quite the contrary. It is one of the tasks of the University to oppose this broader tendency and to educate students about the harmful effects of such a decline in civility.

The student letter-writers proudly tell us that they participated in respectful, enthusiastic discussion with someone who regularly engages in vile, racist rhetoric and trades in the hysterical nonsense that envisions our President as a crypto-fascist enemy of the United States. They thereby demonstrate their belief that her manner of ‘argumentation’ is within the bounds of rational debate on a university campus. They claim a commitment to ‘open debate,’ but they are entirely uncritical in their invocation of that notion. If they had wanted to bring a thoughtful and civil gay conservative figure to campus, there is a pool of such individuals from which they could have picked. That they instead chose someone who has cynically made a career out of sensationalistic offensiveness tells us much about the limits of their understanding of civil discourse in a university.

The students who deserve to be proud of their actions are those who came to the talk to challenge Bruce’s very presence on this campus and then, when Bruce demonstrated that she could not and would not defend her hateful speech, summarily walked out, thus refusing to confer on her the status of a legitimate interlocutor. It is no accomplishment to cheerfully welcome to campus a speaker who mocks the very idea of reasoned debate by what she says.

Alexander Riley

Dept. of Sociology/Anthropology


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