This has been a year of intense, at times rancorous debate. From the beginning of the year, we’ve engaged one another nonstop in tireless discourse. Some commentators have called this “the awakening” of our campus. Others have wondered where civil discourse has gone. Nevertheless, we at TKS think bringing John Ashcroft was just what the doctor ordered.
The Knox Republicans gave us just what we needed with John Ashcroft – not a speaker to whom we could easily nod our heads, but a controversial one that pushed into the kind of self-reflection on which this campus thrives. The evidence is everywhere, not the least of which is a three-page Discourse section packed with differing student arguments. Regardless of your position on the issues raised on Tuesday night, we at TKS believe that discourse is always productive.
The rhetoric currently bouncing around campus focuses on listening to one another, but we’re getting bogged down by what it means to listen. Some people felt that the protestors weren’t really listening to John Ashcroft, even though they heard every word he said, because they weren’t willing to accept his opinions. But, as Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” It is true that the protesters entered the theater with preformed opinions about John Ashcroft’s actions, but so did everybody else. People should not be required to accept opinions that they believe are wrong in the name of liberalism. Disagreeing with someone does not necessarily mean you’re ignoring them. It is true that none of the protestors were converted into neoconservatives by Ashcroft’s speech, but it is important to remember that being narrow-minded and having made up your mind are not always the same thing.
Though Ashcroft is an important person in the neoconservative movement and did make arguments in his talk that would (and should) make for good debate, it is important to remember that he is not just a thinker. He does not just write books or head-up a think tank. He was personally responsible for some very controversial decisions, and most of the protests were in response to these actions. Protesting an action and protesting an idea are very different, and it is important to keep this distinction in mind as we discuss and digest the event.
When the Chinese Ambassador visited campus one year ago, students were ready to ask him hard, thought-out questions. But the ambassador did not receive the same protest as Ashcroft, and that is because the ambassador is not the person who oppressed Tibetans or instituted the one child policy. He was a spokesperson for the nation, and Knox treated him as such. Ashcroft was responsible for the Patriot Act and was responsible for a definition of “torture” that allows for sleep deprivation and waterboarding.
While we would like to encourage a debate about the ideas Ashcroft represents and defends, we also think it is important to consider that protesting a person’s actions is different than protesting a person’s thoughts.