Independent thought and individual expression must be mutually respected and encouraged in order that we may seek justice, walk humbly, and live in a community together, said David French, conservative journalist, who spoke on Tuesday, February 25 at an all-school convocation on this year’s school theme of “Belonging.”
After being introduced by student leaders of Loomis Chaffee’s Shultz Fellows, a student-led, non-partisan political discussion club, Mr. French shared some of what he’s learned about independent thought and tolerance in the trajectory of his education and professional life which took him from his home in rural Kentucky to study at Harvard Law School, followed by a career in law and the military, and eventually to working as a conservative writer.
Reflecting on his past experiences engaged in politics, culture, and religion, Mr. French said he noticed that he and others tended to remain in intolerable situations for fear of the ramifications of independence and change. Noting that the pressure to conform grows even more powerful after high school, establishing independence early in life is critically important, he said, to learn to be open to ideas that may run contrary to one’s experience.
“Timidity is habit-forming, but so is courage,” Mr. French remarked.
He talked about how he looked forward to leaving his small Christian university in Tennessee to attend Harvard Law School to engage in academic discourse with some of the smartest people in the U.S. even though he knew the majority of them would likely disagree with his conservative views. But he said he believed strongly in philosopher John Stuart Mill’s idea of free speech — that even if an expressed opinion is false, the truth is better understood in the exercise of countering the error. So he was surprised that instead of invitations to debate or discourse, he received aggressively negative responses to a pro-life information flyer he circulated on campus.
“I won’t call them death threats — they were more like death aspirations,” he quipped.
This kind of angry, hate-filled, “shout down” happens across the spectrum of experiences and viewpoints when people feel threatened, he said. Though Mr. French made many friends at Harvard despite their opposing political ideologies, his initial response to being shouted down was to “talk louder,” which he knows is “not good” and behavior he tries to keep in check.
“In my view, the response to hate is love, and the response to intolerance is tolerance,” Mr. French said. He added that while he is not always perfect in doing so, he aspires to live by the obligations spelled out in the Bible passage, Micah 6:8, to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly to live a life that’s good.
Seeking justice is easy for most of us, he said, and in the context of political discourse loving mercy means recognizing the humanity of your opponent — right or wrong. Walking humbly means accepting that you might be wrong and to be open to listening to the opinions of others, Mr. French explained.
He cautioned against responding too often with anger to every disagreement because it shuts down engagement and limits independence. There is more power in being reasonable, Mr. French stated, so that when it matters, and you are truly outraged, people will pay attention.
He shared some examples of people forming bipartisan coalitions across vastly different backgrounds to seek justice together as a community, which he called “glimmers of hope.”
Scaling back our anger, seeking justice together, respecting our shared humanity, and acknowledging that we are not always right is how “in an increasingly diverse culture with divergent ideas about what is right and true” we can live together in shared fellowship, Mr. French concluded.
On Monday, February 24, Mr. French shared dinner and conversation with students in the Young Republicans Club, Shultz Fellows, and some faculty members on campus. After the convocation, Mr. French continued the discussion with a group of nearly 50 students and faculty, including students in two sections of the tenth-grade Best Self Seminars. His visit to campus was made possible with support from the Robert P. Hubbard '47 Speakers Series.
David French is senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative politics, policy, and culture media company, and a columnist for Time. He was formerly a senior writer for National Review. Mr. French is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former lecturer at Cornell Law School. He has served as a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom. As a member of the United States Army Reserve, he deployed to Iraq in 2007 where he served as Squadron Judge Advocate and was awarded the Bronze Star. His new book, Divided We Fall, is set for release later his year.