Last month, after White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, called upon Americans to “push back” against those working in the current administration. “They’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop at a department store, the people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them,” she said.
These incidents are microcosms of a larger trend in American — especially political — discourse. Daily we see videos of individuals accosting others who do not look white, telling them to leave the country or speak English. Our president has taken to tweeting derisive nicknames for political opponents. The more vitriol, the better, it seems.
Recently, calls for “ civility” have emerged, particularly in response to liberal attacks on conservatives. While these calls have been derided by some as unreasonable in the face of family separations and other examples of dehumanization, we are sympathetic to the sentiment. There is something to be said for civil discussion.
In our field, criminology, ideas are the bread and butter of professionals. Theories about why people commit crime and how prevent it are paramount to one’s career. And so ideas become personal, deeply held and strongly defended.
Yet, we believe science and knowledge advance when people are open to being wrong, when they accept the weight of evidence, and when they are willing to talk to each other in respectful ways. Criminology, over the years, has hosted many “great debates” between scholars who disagreed with one another, but did so in ways that allowed the opposing side to hear them out and respond. These debates are the subject of our new book, “ Great Debates in Criminology,” published last month.
In writing the book, we identified several lessons about engaging those with whom we disagree and were struck by the relevance of those lessons to the current state of American discourse.
First, criminology advanced through scholars engaging with, not avoiding, those with whom they disagree. This suggests to us that blocking, unfriending or avoiding in real life those with whom you disagree politically will only create more insularity, limiting opportunities to understand and empathize with those who think differently. This only reduces the chance that any one side understands the concerns of the other — blocking avenues for collaboration and societal improvement.
Second, humor can be used to good effect. One of our favorite criminologists, Travis Hirschi, was a staunch defender of his positions. But he never failed to engage opponents and was often very funny about it.
In one particular debate, Hirschi argued that separate theories should not be combined into what are called “integrated” theories. He called himself an “oppositional” theorist and explained “oppositional theorists should … remain blind at all times to the weaknesses of their own position and stubborn in its defense.” And “they should never smile.” Hirschi was poking fun at his own intractability while also enabling his point to come across. Today, we may make more progress if we admit our own shortcomings and poke fun at ourselves a bit more.
Third, we should remain open to evidence. Great debates in criminology and other fields need, at some point, to be settled. At the end of each chapter of our book, we weighed the evidence on each side. So it should be with the current political discourse. Not everything those who we disagree with say is flat out wrong; some of it makes sense, and some may be partially correct. We need to listen and to be open to that idea.
There is a crucial caveat: We are in no way suggesting that dehumanizing, racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted opinions or policies should be given anything but derision. Not all perspectives are created equal. We are instead talking about legitimate policy positions and discourse with those who simply lean in a different direction.
The U.S. seems stuck at the moment. We are not talking to one another. We are not baking cakes for or serving in restaurants those with whom we disagree. We use names such as “deplorable” and “snowflake” to characterize each other, lacking basic dignity and respect. It is time to re-engage, use humor and remain open as we seek a way forward past this current stalemate.
Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston. Chad Posick is an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. They are both members of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
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