American politics sometimes seems like a contest to see which group of partisans can take greater umbrage at the most recent outrageous remark from a member of the opposing tribe. As a mild countermeasure, I offer a modest proposal for American universities. All freshmen should be required to take a course called “Offense 101,” where the readings will consist of arguments from across the political and philosophical spectrum that some substantial proportion of the student body is likely to find offensive. Selections from The Bell Curve. Essays from one of the New Atheists and one of their opponents, and from hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” monograph. Defenses of eugenics, torture, violent revolution, authoritarianism, aggressive censorship, and absolute free speech. Positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels. Assemble your own curriculum—there’s no shortage of material.
For each reading, students will have to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion. Points deducted if an observer can tell the student doesn’t really agree with the position they’re defending.
Only after this phase is complete will students be allowed to begin rebutting the arguments. Anyone who thinks it’s relevant to point out that the argument is offensive (or bigoted, sexist, unpatriotic, fascistic, communistic, whatever) will receive a patronizing look from the professor that says: “Yes, obviously, did you not read the course title? Let’s move on.” Insofar as these labels are shorthand for an argument that certain categories of views are wrong and can be rejected as a class, the actual argument will have to be presented. Following the rebuttal phase, students will be randomly assigned to a side for an in-class debate.
On the last day of the course, but not before then, students will be allowed to vent opinions regarding the degree of moral or intellectual depravity that could permit someone to write such appalling things. Until Venting Day, everyone is obligated to maintain the tone they’d use if they were evaluating papers from an experimental physics journal.
The point, of course, is not that we should all be Vulcans about contentious political issues, or that it isn’t sometimes perfectly sufficient to point out that an argument is repulsive and bigoted, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. Life is too short to pretend that every screed out there merits a reasoned response. But let’s face it, a lot of our fellow citizens believe appalling things—yet remain our fellow citizens. There’s value in developing the capacity to respond dispassionately to those beliefs, so that even when we decide not to exercise it, it’s a choice rather than a reflex. And if a generation that’s gone through this training starts to regard the practitioners of fishing-for-outrage politics as faintly ridiculous, well, call that a perk.
Addendum: This will, of course, be show the first day…