Note: President Pasquerella is on an Alumnae Association-sponsored voyage, “In the Wake of the Vikings,” traveling in Scotland, Denmark and Norway.
June 13: Touring Edinburgh’s Old Town today, President Pasquerella was thinking about Liberal Learning, the Death Eaters, and the Vulgar.
Throughout my professional life, I have always looked forward to long plane rides—a reflective space, free from phones and email, where I can catch up on the latest movies or watch an entire season of my favorite television shows. Flying from Hartford to Amsterdam, I watched a hysterically funny episode of Frasier, entitled “We Two Kings.” In it, Frasier and his brother Niles fight over who will host Christmas dinner, capturing familiar dynamics around the holidays most families would recognize immediately. When Niles asks Frasier why he has to make everything so difficult, Frasier replies, “Niles, I’ve got news for you ... Copernicus called, and you are not the center of the universe.” Every time I travel abroad, I think about that line, especially when I read the local newspapers.
While there were mentions in the three major Scottish newspapers of the string of school shootings plaguing the United States and speculation about the mental-health status of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and Obama’s ratings as president, these stories were buried on the fifth page or beyond. Instead, what dominated the Scottish headlines was the pending referendum in September over Scottish independence and the response to the position articulated by the creator of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling. A 21-year resident of the city of Edinburgh, Rowling came out against the Nationalists, arguing in support of the No Campaign. Rowling put her money where her mouth is, donating £1M to the “Better Together” initiative, making her the largest single donor to the effort.
The announcement of her position was met with what John Lamont, the Scottish Conservative Chief Whip, has termed “the most extreme personal abuse imaginable” by so-called Cybernats. These nationalists have launched an online campaign filled with vile and degrading comments. There is no question that the blog post in which Rowling announced her position was well reasoned, but also inflammatory, going so far as comparing extreme nationalists to Death Eaters—supporters of the evil Lord Voldemort in her Harry Potter series. Death Eaters are those who hate people without “pure-blood,” and Rowling has been accused of not being truly Scottish.
As we toured Edinburgh’s Old Town today, we passed the Balmoral Hotel, where Rowling stayed for a month while finishing the last chapter of her famous series. Our guide told us that tourists flocked to see the room where she completed her work. Yet, a few miles down the road, a pub proudly displayed a chalkboard menu with the message “J. K. Rowling never wrote here.” I understand that when one becomes a public figure, one is subject to a different level of scrutiny, criticism, and parody. Yet, these attacks have included ordinary citizens like Clare Lally, who spoke out against independence from concern for one of her daughters who suffers from cerebral palsy. After Lally spoke at a rally for “Better Together,” she was dragged through the mud by opponents who used vicious ad hominem attacks to undermine her credibility.
As a philosopher, I am all for reasoned debate concerning any topic under the sun. However, when debate devolves into mere rhetoric for the sake of bullying and intimidation, we all lose. One of the reasons I have spent my career championing liberal education is because I believe in its power to promote participatory democracy and civic engagement. As my philosophical colleague Martha Nussbaum reminds us, the very notion of being liberally educated came from the Stoics, who believed that in striving for the truth one must be willing to liberate the mind from bondage by considering the possibility that the beliefs one holds most dear might actually be mistaken. Drawing on Socrates and the Stoics, Nussbaum establishes three core values of liberal education: critical self-examination, the ideal of the world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination, which allows us to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of another different from oneself.
I fear that in the world of new social media, a rejection of the open-mindedness required for the promotion of deliberative democracy is at risk. It is easier to troll and flame than it is to engage in prolonged and reasoned discourse about complex issues while looking one’s opponent in the eye. As I was standing in the cemetery at David Hume’s graveside this afternoon, I was thinking about his debate over personal identity and persistence through time with fellow philosopher Thomas Reid. While Reid was Hume’s fiercest critic, he had great respect for his philosophical rival. Indeed, Reid’s reference to the “vulgar” was reserved for those unwilling to engage in the level of analysis necessary to pursue the truth in earnest. Just as the Internet and phone lines have crept into my sanctuary of airspace, making reflection increasingly challenging when there is always more work to be done, vulgarity in Reid’s sense has taken over in contemporary communication, and we are all the poorer for it.
• On June 14, from Glasgow: The Metaphysics of Mount Holyoke
• On June 12, from Edinburgh: Genetic Technology, Scotland, and Angelina Jolie