The recent controversy over whether or not to allow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to speak at this year’s Boe Forum was settled in the worst way possible: his death.
Scalia, a conservative firebrand equally revered and reviled for his sharp legal mind and provocative stance on the major social issues of his day, died in his sleep last Saturday while on a hunting trip in Texas. He was 79.
His sudden passing shocked students and faculty at Augustana, many of whom were busy preparing for his arrival in March—or opposing it. It also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the sad state of political discourse and of the liberal arts in the United States.
Though I consider myself a liberal and opposed the vast majority of Scalia’s legal opinions, I was disappointed by the reaction greeting the announcement that he would be coming to campus.
Many were understandably upset that the university would invite someone who, in his capacity as a judge, was so outspokenly against gay rights and affirmative action. I certainly take issue with Scalia’s opinions in cases like Lawrence v. Texas and Citizen’s United v. FEC (discussed in greater detail this week by Luca Amayo), both of which seemed to trivialize the idea that civil rights are there to protect those who need them the most.
Nevertheless, Scalia remains a formidable figure on the American legal landscape. His “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution leaves much to be desired. But many of its core tenets—in particular, that allowing the courts to decide on contentious political questions imperils the democratic process and tears at the country’s social fabric—remain compelling and rooted in history. (See, for example, the anti-abortion backlash unleashed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.)
No matter my disagreements with the man, I still sought to understand his method, especially since Scalia’s legal opinions, whether we like them or not, will continue to affect our country for generations to come.
This is why it troubled me that many students and faculty at Augustana wanted to “disinvite” Scalia rather than hear him out. The disinvitation trend is an all-too-common one on college campuses today, and it is symptomatic of a much broader problem in American politics and public life.
Healthy democracies depend on dialogue. They require give and take, the frank exchange of ideas and a well-educated citizenry capable of reasoning its way through complex issues. Indeed, a liberal arts education is supposed to contribute to this goal by exposing students to a broad spectrum of ideas and teaching them to think critically about all of them.
Many of us seem to have forgotten that. Instead, we have allowed our passions to carry us away to a point where every political issue is non-negotiable and every opinion hostile to our own is beyond the pale.
I support gay marriage and, in certain cases, affirmative action. But I also recognize that, in a country where not everyone does, we should be having a much more open and reconciliatory dialogue on these issues.
Our representatives in Washington certainly aren’t. Political polarization has turned debates into shouting matches and even the routine business of government into a zero-sum political contest.
Scalia’s death, for example, has already precipitated a bitter partisan fight over President Obama’s decision to nominate a replacement during his final year in office. I’m sure the justice would appreciate the fact that, even in his absence, he continues to stir the pot.
In Washington and throughout the United States, Americans remain as divided as they have been in many decades. But we need not remain that way. One of the simplest ways to bring about change is to make a habit of having thoughtful conversation with people who disagree with you.
It won’t “heal” the nation or suddenly turn enemies into friends. But it will remind you that your political opponents are people, too—and that the free exchange of ideas is one thing we should all be able to agree is as American as apple pie.
Matthew Housiaux is a senior history and journalism major from Brookings, S.D.