By Jasmine Liu
Two weeks ago, the newly appointed faculty advisors of Cardinal Conversations sent a campus-wide email inviting students to provide feedback on a proposal to “reboot” last year’s inaugural speaker series. Cardinal Conversations generated considerable backlash last year, inciting protests against the invitation of Charles Murray and more general critiques of the stupefying lack of diversity among its speakers. This year, its shortfalls have receded from immediate memory, and surprisingly few have offered feedback publicly in these opinion pages or elsewhere. The lack of buzz surrounding the administration’s attempt to revamp the series may be reflective of fizzling interest as its rollout has been beleaguered by delays all year. More broadly, it has likely fallen victim to waning pathos here and nationwide around “free speech” disputes that used to rile up the student body just a year ago.
The College Republicans’ bad-faith tactics have rightly exhausted our campus from defending an empty “free speech” ideal, and have depleted all meaning from the phrase “change my mind.” But what often gets overlooked in discussions about “free speech” at Stanford is the thriving landscape of dialogue that already exists here and transcends a simplistic framing that confines the telos of conversations to “crossing political divides” or “reaching across the aisle.” In just this past academic year, I’ve listened to Jeffrey Toobin speak about Trump’s Supreme Court days before Kavanaugh’s confirmation; Annie Lowrey outline why UBI should be a cornerstone of the government’s economic policy; Anand Giridharadas criticize the double standards Silicon Valley holds when it comes to social good; and Mayor Ruben Abrica answer questions about the housing crisis in East Palo Alto. And this is not to mention all the timely and insightful events I did not attend: Alex Stamos on “The Battle for the Soul of the Internet,” Bob Woodward on his explosive book “Fear,” and John Carreyrou on his fascinating investigation of Theranos, to name just a few.
Against this backdrop, as the Office of the Provost and the new faculty committee consider recommendations in shaping the series as it makes a second attempt this year, there should be a recognition that the primary challenge is one that cannot be easily resolved by cobbling together disparate crowd-sourced suggestions. Instead, it is a philosophical one that poses two separate but interrelated questions: what is the mission of Cardinal Conversations, and who is the author of the series?
Persis Drell and Marc Tessier-Lavigne have wavered on key components of Cardinal Conversations: they have cast many of last year’s missteps as byproducts of the “experimental” nature of the programming, and have openly accepted criticism on last year’s speaker selection and governance structure. But they have been steadfast in their commitment to Cardinal Conversations’ founding objective, excessively reiterating that they “feel strongly that free expression and an inclusive culture can coexist, and are, in fact, integral to the academic life of the university.” Their dedication to this project is evidence that they continue to think that the differentiator for Cardinal Conversations is its ability to bring together two values that presumably do not frequently appear in conjunction here. Echoes of this credo reverberate in their vision of patronizing “civil and intellectually rigorous” conversation that can “serve as a model” for the community. But the deeply thoughtful cover story for the April 2018 Stanford Politics magazine “Dialogue as Alibi” (which incidentally, should be required reading for any member of a Cardinal Conversations committee) effectively highlights the condescension involved in “shaming the rest of us for ‘acute intellectual decay’ while simultaneously posturing as the exclusive custodian of epistemic humility, rationality, and dialogue.” To maintain the line that free expression is being quashed is to imprudently succumb to moral panic being propagated by Heterodox Academy-type public intellectuals that persistently portray the “freedom” of American universities as under attack. More unfortunately, it turns a blind eye to the vibrance of dynamic class discussions, coffee shop conversations and speaking events organized by departments, schools and student organizations.
What could be a much more convincing raison d’etre for Cardinal Conversations is that Stanford lacks a true public sphere—as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas defines it, “the sphere of private people come together as a public,” exemplified by the café, where the spirit of participatory democracy and public opinion unfolds. Without the equalizing experience of a core curriculum, and with the diversity of backgrounds and intellectual interests it prides itself on, Stanford faces an uphill battle in generating a forum for shared discourse. A recognition that the principal aim of the series is structuring this public sphere would be a meaningful shift in approach from the current one, which strives to uphold an ill-defined “balance” through debate across “difference.” The previous model presumes some objective truth which can be attained through bipartisan inclusion—which, of course, already excludes ideas that don’t fit the liberal-conservative mold. Explicitly confronting the task of fashioning the conditions for public discourse acknowledges that speech sponsored by the highest levels of our administration can never really be “free” in any meaningful sense anyways.
But that need not nullify the charge of Cardinal Conversations. It simply requires that those involved in the planning process be upfront with the project they are already engaged in. If the justification for bringing particular speakers can no longer be countering the “hegemony of liberal consensus,” then the Committee will have to grapple with the actual content of thought they are endorsing rather than its mere novelty. The additional opacity and decentralization of authority in last year’s Steering Committee produced an infuriating setup in which those on the Committee could defend the invitation of speakers like Charles Murray on principle while conceding that his ideas were “offensive and unproductive.” Those who supported his appearance transformed the event into an “interesting and challenging exercise,” an opportunity to read up on “The Bell Curve” and have “fun discussion[s]” with friends about pseudoscience—clearly because there were no stakes involved for them. True deliberative conversation should not be about weeding out those with real stakes to carve out room for intellectual voyeurism that privileges a disinterested position as the most rigorous one. To be courageous enough to own up to the tall order that Cardinal Conversations assigned to itself the moment it was announced, it must stand behind the ideas it makes space for—not just the abstraction of the space. In the same way that the “free market” never exists without calculated regulations, the “marketplace of ideas” is always predetermined by a political economy that sets forth its conditions of existence. And if Cardinal Conversations decides, at the end of the day, that the conservative voice is the authoritative perspective missing at Stanford that it would like to infuse into campus discourse, then it is entitled to make that (condemnable) judgment call—so long as it is frank about what ideas it finds valuable.
It is therefore unpromising to me that while responsibility for Cardinal Conversations lies in the Office of the Provost, Drell and Tessier-Lavigne will continue to play no role in speaker selection. Whose model of campus dialogue is being promoted, and whose perspectives does Cardinal Conversations represent? According to Drell, the Committee sought to improve diversity in speakers’ backgrounds and its own membership after receiving criticism midway through the programming last year; meanwhile, they stood by the invitation of Murray despite widespread outcry. Their awkward positionality as benefactors of the series who simultaneously have no opinion on how it is enacted has induced them to constantly re-solicit feedback from the student community, while selectively deciding which feedback is worth implementing. Besides the fact that the ASSU has already charged an organization with the task of inviting speakers who the student body wants to see (ASSU Speakers Bureau), the aspiration towards full diversity and representation is a misguided one that leads nowhere. How can the various contours, hues and textures of thought and experience at Stanford be reasonably encapsulated through just four or five speaking events? I’m not interested in being in attendance at a doomed effort to capture all viewpoints and experiences; I want to walk into an event knowing who our administration has found meaningful and why. Instead of shrouding the series in a veil of objectivity, the key agents involved—namely, Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Persis Drell—should fully commit to their project, or otherwise rename it accordingly to indicate who is accountable.
The most influential event I’ve attended while at Stanford was a panel entitled Mutuality: The Future of Justice Movements, hosted by the Institute of Diversity in the Arts in the spring of 2018. Patrisse Cullors, who is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Linda Sarsour, who is lead organizer of the Women’s March, Favianna Rodriguez and Raquel de Anda conversed eloquently about what activism could look like when spearheaded by leaderless, horizontal feminism rather than through masculine cults of charisma that have historically organized social justice movements. More impressive than the panel itself was the vision for the event. Harry Elam welcomed and recognized partners from across the university who planned the event; moderator and then executive director of IDA, Jeff Chang, proceeded to introduce the event with a beautifully written statement about the power and relevance of the participants’ backgrounds to the current age. Each aspect of this event—the format, the intentionality and who was brought into the fold—culminated in an argument about how change should be pursued in this world.
In an era over-saturated by a surplus of content, “what” matters less than “why.” So long as Cardinal Conversations remains befogged by its desperate clench on neutrality, its work will be a far cry from moving, purposive events such as Mutuality.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.