Mark Kingwell and the Degradation of Intellectual Discourse

Commentary, Gerry Bowler

Mark Kingwell is what is commonly called an intellectual, a social critic. He has an impressive list of advanced degrees and has published books on difficult topics such as baseball, cocktails, and democracy. He is paid by the taxpayers of Ontario to teach philosophy to their university-going adolescents, but a recent article in the Globe and Mail entitled “Don’t bother trying to understand those on the ‘other side’” suggests that his faith in rationality is wearing thin.

Kingwell is clearly vexed by the failure of democracy to silence the speech of those he disagrees with. Extremists such as David Duke and Richard Spencer, and the current American president are mentioned among those with whom no “rational engagement is possible”. Kingwell is willing to go farther and to say that “we ought likewise to recognize that most people can’t actually be reasoned with.” Oh sure, people with an opinion might begin with merely interrupting an argument but then, says Kingwell, they could move on to raising their voices and, before you know it, there they are, carrying torches in a neo-Nazi parade. Clearly, restrictions are needed.

Freedom of expression, we are told, will not produce reasoned outcomes. What is needed is not just more civility in our public discussions but “curbs on speech”, less trying to understand our opponents and more shutting them up before they are allowed to say anything. Since we ban hateful speech already, we should go on to prohibit people with strong feelings from expressing themselves, by insisting on “discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media.” Kingwell even suggests a ban on media panel discussions (which anyone who saw the shameful CBC television coverage of the results of the American election might be tempted to agree with).

Kingwell has clearly let down the side of philosophical debating about differences in this fatuous opinion piece. It is not the job of philosophers to abandon the marketplace of ideas. In faculty lounges they might well sneer at the common folk and their crude ways, but they are still expected to champion the notion of rationality and the production of better ideas to combat the bad ones. Socrates in the Athenian agora did not disdain arguing with the unenlightened. Faced with hecklers, Abraham Lincoln didn’t abandon the fight against slavery with a shrug of his shoulders and a muttered “Haters are gonna hate.”

In 1927, French philosopher Julien Benda wrote a little book called La Trahison des Clercs, whose English translation was The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. In it, Benda decried “the intellectual organization of political hatreds”. He castigated European thinkers for abandoning the quest for reason and for using their talents to stoke violent ideologies such as fascism and ultra-nationalism. With this article, Mark Kingwell has accomplished a new betrayal, turning aside from reason and opting for the repression of ideas that we used to associate only with the enemies of democracy.