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“The Perils of Public Discourse” — prepared text

Prepared text of a speech delivered Nov. 7 to the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago

I’m going to frame my talk today around a personal story that will sound very familiar to those who have been following the decaying of our society’s capacity for rational discourse.

On September 26th of this year, the DePaulia – the student newspaper at DePaul University – published an opinion essay by two of the paper’s news editors declaring that it was “inappropriate” that I’d been invited to participate in an upcoming campus panel discussion titled “Tough Times for Local Journalism.”

Their reason was that I had “expressed racist views about Latinx youth and (shown) great insensitivity towards police brutality” in a column published in the Chicago Tribune nearly six months earlier.

They wrote, “Selecting Zorn to speak at DePaul shows students of color that the school has no regard for their physical or mental wellbeing…..We believe that hate speech should not be allowed on campus because it can put students at risk of vulnerable situations.”

I want to litigate this accusation today because it’s both illustrative and important.

The column that riled up these two editors – and I admit, literally thousands of people on Twitter at the time – was about the police killing of a 13-year-old-boy, Adam Toledo, in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

It happened at 2:38 a.m. on Monday March 29. Police had responded to reports of gunshots fired, had chased Adam – who was carrying a gun – down an alley and had killed him with one shot to the chest.

That’s what what was known to the public at the time that I wrote that column, a little more than week after the fact.

It was, I wrote “a tragedy no matter what the circumstances” were. A lot has gone wrong when a 13-year-old ends up fleeing from police in the middle of the night with a gun in his hand.

But was it an outrage?

Another example of unjustified police violence against people of color?

Activists had already decided that yes, yes it was. They were marching in the streets in protest.

Black Lives Matter Chicago tweeted, “there is absolutely no … justification for murdering our children.”

Organized Communities Against Deportation tweeted out a drawing of Adam with angel’s wings and a halo over his head accompanied by a statement reading, “there are NO INSTANCES where murderous violence against a child is justified.”

And I want to emphasize that this was before any body-cam video had been released showing the circumstances of what police were describing as an “armed confrontation” that resulted in the boy’s death.

Now, I believe that it’s the sacred duty of not just a newspaper columnist but of a citizen to take a step back when emotions are high and to say,“wait a second…”

What do we know to be true here? And what do we just think might be true?

Before we convict a police officer of murder in the court of public opinion, shouldn’t we apply the same tests of fairness and make the same demands for evidence that we would if we ourselves were ever to be accused of a crime?

That’s what I wrote.

That was the racist hate speech that editors at the DePaulia said threatened the physical and mental well being of students of color at the University, and that disqualified me from being part of a panel discussing the future of local journalism.

I did not once mention race in that column, though that Adam was Hispanic was well known by then.

What I said was it was too soon to declare that he was martyr to police violence.

I wrote

Activists and concerned community members are right to keep the heat on for answers. The public deserves them after any police shooting of a civilian. And (the activists) may be right that the officer fired without justification and that Adam Toledo is a martyr whose killers should be prosecuted.

Or a thorough review may find that (the officer) shot in justifiable self-defense.

It’s too early to say.

That seemed obvious to me and still does.

I went on to point out that a big reason this case was getting so much attention both locally and nationally was the boy’s age, just 13.

“He was a baby,” said a tweet from a local anti-violence activist

I wrote that, while it is too early to jump to conclusions about this particular shooting, it was not too early to stop romanticizing and infantilizing 13-year-olds.

They can be dangerous.

I cited five examples of 13-year olds charged with murder in the U.S. in just the previous six months. I did not research the races of those suspects because I didn’t consider it relevant.

I wrote that these charges against other very young defendants don’t necessarily tell us anything about Adam Toledo, but they do suggest that using his age as shorthand for innocence and harmlessness in this situation, and as proof of the depravity of the police officer generates heat but sheds no light.

A 13-year-old with a gun is as dangerous as a 23- or 33-year-old with a gun, maybe even more dangerous given what we know about the lack of judgment and impulse control in adolescents.

In fact, I wrote, it’s that very lack of judgment in still-developing brains that inspires the hope for growth, reform and redemption that undergirds the concept of juvenile justice. It’s what renders it immoral to impose life sentences on young offenders.

I concluded that column  by arguing that it’s not too early to ask how we can better support young people — all people — in economically disadvantaged communities.

It’s not too early to ask what employment, educational and recreational opportunities we can offer to give them better paths to success;  to ask what treatments and interventions will reduce the number of such shattering incidents.

Well, I was buried for this on social media. I received literally thousands of incandescently angry, contemptuous responses to this column before I turned off my mentions.

The central allegation was that I was defending the murder of a child, almost certainly because that child was not white.

I was then and I remain today willing to discuss this allegation with anyone who is willing to listen as well as to shout.

I extended a particular invitation — one that remains open — to Northwestern University Journalism professor  Steven Thrasher, who tweeted that he was cancelling his Tribune subscription over my column because “there is no space in a newspaper for arguing for the murder of a child, and that it’s ‘never to early” to think they are worthy of murder.”

That’s a journalism professor. At Northwestern University.

I wrote to Thrasher a month later with a calm invitation to discuss his accusation via email. I wrote, “one of the jobs of a journalist is to question and challenge emerging narratives and conventional wisdom — to be clear about what we know for sure and what we suspect.”

Here was his response, in full:

Your words make the murder of children more likely, and I have no interest in you, your unethical nature, your cynical worldview, or in communicating with you.

That’s a journalism professor. At Northwestern University.

After I published this exchange in the Tribune, his colleagues at the university rushed to publicly distance themselves from his remarks and his attitudes.

Just kidding.

Of course they didn’t. They said nothing. I heard crickets from the vaunted Medill school of journalism.

Do his colleagues on the journalism faculty side with him? I don’t know. I doubt it. I believe nearly all them do agree that one of the jobs of a journalist is to question and challenge emerging narratives and conventional wisdom, to be clear about what we know for sure and what we suspect.

Are they scared for their professional lives that if they speak up, speak out against this activist bullshit that they, too, will be buried on social media? That inflamed students will call them racists and try to deny them the opportunity to have a voice on campus?

I don’t know. I don’t speak cricket.

But I’ll consider this speech a public invitation to the leadership at Medill to clarify their position. To take a stand.

Not just about me or my column.  But about the fundamental idea that we should not, must not shy from challenging emerging narratives and conventional wisdom.

Our culture has to re-learn how to debate and discuss difficult issues without taking every disagreement straight to 11 and trying to stifle and silence those who take an opposing position.

College campuses have become hotbeds of this. Insufferable, self-righteous activists continually attempt to deplatform and shame those with whom they have basic policy differences.

Take the case of Dorian Abbot, a distinguished geophysicist at the University of Chicago.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology invited him to give a public lecture this fall about his work in the area of climate change.

But then all hell broke loose because, Abbot, who is white, is an opponent of affirmative action measures designed to advance the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at academic institutions.

He and an accounting professor at Stanford wrote an opinion essay in Newsweek  in August that said this.

 (The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion effort) violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. ….

DEI (measures compromise) the university’s mission. The core business of the university is the search for truth. A university’s intellectual environment depends fundamentally on its commitment to hiring the most talented and best trained minds: any departure from this commitment must come at the expense of academic excellence, and ultimately will compromise the university’s contribution to society.

Whether you agree or disagree with Professor Abbot’s views on racial preferences in hiring or admission is not the point.

The point is that his is, in fact, a debatable proposition, a proposition that is, at the very least, in the mainstream of American thought.

A 2018 survey from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC) found that 72% of U.S. adults oppose giving preference to Black Americans in hiring and promotion

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 73% of Americans say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making admissions decisions

Last November,  California voters defeated by a 56 to 44 percent margin a proposal that would have allowed race and gender considerations to be a factor in public employment, education and contracting.

Yet Pew also found in 2019 that 75% of Americans agree that it’s very or somewhat important for “companies and organizations to promote racial and ethnic diversity in their workplace.”

And earlier this year, when Gallup asked vaguely about “affirmative action programs for racial minorities,” they found 62% support.

No matter how you analyze such data, you simply cannot deny that affirmative action is an issue about which reasonable people disagree.

MIT was having none of it, though. The university cancelled Abbot’s lecture in the face of complaints similar to those he’d received at UChicago that his very presence threatened the “safety and the belonging of all underrepresented groups”

The mention of physical safety has become familiar. You’ll remember that the DePaul students who felt I should not grace a stage there fretted that my very presence amounted to hate speech that might “put students at risk of vulnerable situations.”

Can actual hate speech put certain individuals in danger? Of course.

But categorizing mainstream ideas or opinions with which one does not agree as hate speech puts the entire concept of rational discourse in – what would they call it? – oh yes, a “vulnerable situation.”

Rational discourse is how we settle differences, edge toward compromise and devise ways of living together in a society in which we inevitably have different opinions about important things.

Political orthodoxy — political fundamentalism that says either you are 100 percent with us or you are a heretic–  is toxic to the functioning of a free society.

Do you have any questions or misgivings about when and whether trans women – those born male who have transitioned to female — can compete in women’s sports or be housed in women’s prisons or admitted to women’s domestic violence shelters? If so, you are likely to be called a hater.

Even if you’re otherwise totally fine with respecting gender identity,  a using preferred pronouns and championing equal rights in housing and employment…if you’re not all the way there, you’re transphobic.

Even though you’re not alone.

A Gallup Poll in May found 62 percent of respondents saying transgender individuals should have to compete with and against athletes of their “birth gender.”

Pretending this view is so wrong, so out of bounds as not to be debatable is, in fact, the extreme position, the position that should be marginalized.

When I was reviled for my Adam Toledo column it was unpleasant, I admit. I lost some sleep over it, primarily because I was out of town at the time and I was a little worried that some of these inflamed critics would literally bring their complaints to my doorstep.

Protesting at people’s homes has become a thing, you know. A deplorable thing, in my view, but a thing. The boundaries between public and private are crumbling – consider the protesters who followed Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema into a public bathroom Oct. 2 to confront her over her obstructionist policies.

I lost sleep but I didn’t lose my job. My editors stood beside me despite turmoil in the newsroom from colleagues who turned on me .

Not everyone who is dogpiled on Twitter is so lucky.

Earlier this year I wrote about Dr. Howard Bauchner, editor of the  Journal of the American Medical Association here in Chicago. He was forced to resign because – and see if you can follow this — the host of a JAMA podcast that Bauchner was not on, offered, on that podcast, the opinion that poorer health outcomes for African Americans are “more of a socio-economic phenomenon” than evidence of structural racism in society.

This is heterodox. Not just controversial but heretical in the eyes of some. The podcast host was forced to resign from his position at the magazine and then Bauchner, groveling obsequiously about his ultimate responsibility and mewling that he was “profoundly disappointed in” himself was nevertheless shown the door.

Or consider this local story.

In early June 2020, a little more than a week after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police and many cities were roiling with protests over racism and police violence, the Chicago-based poetry foundation put out a statement, and I will read it to you in full :

 The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority. 

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

Got it? Can you see the problem with it? The offense that prompted some 1,800 outraged people to sign an open letter demanding the resignations of Foundation President Henry Bienen and Board of Directors Chair Willard Bunn III?

Well, friends, that statement was “worse than the bare minimum” because “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.”

In this over-the-top condemnation was what I considered to be a reasonable demand — for the Poetry Foundation to “write a meaningful statement that details the specific, material ways it plans to “work to eradicate institutional racism.” What are the tangible actions the Foundation will take towards supporting racial justice initiatives?”

Fair enough, right?

The initial statement from the Poetry Foundation was light on details and it would certainly be reasonable for concerned parties to request a follow-up containing specifics.

But that’s not how we’re doing things anymore. Aggrieved parties don’t negotiate or accept apologies. You don’t say, OK, good start, pretty words, but let’s put some action behind those the words. No. You say this lack of specificity is a violent contribution to genocide, the authors must be fired!

You don’t say, you know, this podcast raises some interesting questions about the degree to which persistent racial inequalities seemed linked to poorer health outcome for African Americans.

No. You say all involved must lose their jobs for daring to suggest that socio-economic factors may play a larger role than racism in poorer health outcomes.

You don’t say, affirmative action requires some policy tradeoffs that many people consider a violation of the right of every individual to equal treatment, so let’s discuss how can we best promote equity and inclusion given that reality.

No. You say a person with such a view cannot be allowed to speak

And, to my story, you don’t say, “We would like to discuss the most effective ways for reporters and opinion writers to cover controversies that arise over incidents in which the outcome is tragic for a person of color but the details are still very unclear.”

No. You say all reporting and commentary that doesn’t conform to the party line that cops are violent racists who want to murder Black and brown children are themselves tantamount to violence.

You say, as another journalist in town wrote, that it “doesn’t matter a lick what happened before the officer shot” Adam Toledo, because “this isn’t a ‘both sides’ issue…. There is only one side here.”

Only one side.

You got that?

Even though on-the-ground reporting in the aftermath of the incident showed that the residents of Little Village were divided in their views about the shooting. Even though I got email from hundreds of supportive readers – including John Rosales a former member of the board of directors of Little Village Chamber of Commerce – saying they shared my view of the situation and applauded my caution.

Even though, by that time, the police body cam was out and showed that Adam had discreetly tossed his gun behind a fence in the split second before he wheeled around with his empty hands up, creating a situation in which the officer was not in danger but perceived that he was.

The shooting was unnecessary. The outcome horrifying. But authorities who have looked at it all frame-by-frame, appear to have concluded that the officer did not commit a crime, much less  a murder.

Turns out it does matter a lot more than “a lick” what happened before the officer made his fatal miscalculation.

But there’s only one side….

…that’s allowed to have a view.

Many of my critics thought I should have lost my job over that column, even though I did write a follow-up in which I expressed regret for the chilly, analytical tone, a tone that didn’t fully convey how awful it was that a kid has lost his life.

Those howling for my head didn’t know that I’ve championed liberal causes for decades and that my first big story about the flaws of the death penalty was a lengthy investigation that cleared two Hispanic defendants in a 1983 rape and murder of a child, and implicated a white defendant who was later tried and convicted for that murder.

I’d also written columns demanding a review of the so-called Ford Heights Four — a quartet of African American men wrongfully convicted of a 1978 double murder of a white couple– and of Juan Rivera – a Hispanic man wrongfully convicted of a the 1992 rape and murder of a 11-year-old white babysitter.

But the mob does not do nuance.

The mob, like Northwestern University Journalism professor Steven Thrasher, does not want to debate.

The mob wants to cancel people. I realize that “cancel culture” is divisive term and one that’s been embraced by the right.

Many of my friends and allies on the left say that no, it’s not “cancel culture,” it’s “accountability culture “or “consequence culture.” They say that efforts by the extremely online to have people de-platformed and fired are simply efforts to hold people “accountable” and to endure “consequences” for their horrible words.

That’s often pure nonsense. The desired consequences are vastly disproportional to the perceived offenses and they are usually administered without any kind of objective rational evaluation of the situation.

It turns out mobs are uniquely bad at that.

But what’s also pure nonsense is the idea that the left is where all the canceling and attempted canceling takes place.

Long before “cancel culture” was even a term, the political right has been enthusiastic in its attempts to ban, burn and marginalize books, music, activists and anything or anyone else they feel has stepped over some cultural or political lines.

You want “cancel culture”? Try the McCarthy-era blacklists. Try Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell’s 1999 effort to take “The Teletubbies” off public TV because he felt the character Tinky-Winky was gay   Try the 2003 country radio boycott of the band then known as the Dixie Chicks for criticizing President George W. Bush.

Try the efforts of conservatives to ban from the curriculum such books as “Catcher in the Rye,”  “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Slaughterhouse Five”, the Harry Potter novels, and “Beloved,”  to name just a few titles.

Try the efforts of former President Donald Trump to get fired Bill Maher, Chris Matthews Katy Tur, Paul Krugman, Chuck Todd, Kathleen Sebelius, Donna Brazile and others.

Try Trump’s futile calls for boycotts of companies he felt had crossed or disrespected him, including Apple, Harley Davidson, Nabisco, Rolling Stone, Univision and Macy’s.

Think of the how Trump tried in 2017 to have San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fired or suspended for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. And think of how NFL owners went along with that effort by keeping him out of the league.

Or just take a look at the demands on the right these days that teachers not be allowed to dwell on America’s ugly history with race but instead be forced to inculcate students with something called “patriotic history” that glosses over the unsavory elements in our collective past and promotes shallow jingoism.

Members of school boards across this country have been subjected to harassment and threats for not toeing the conservative line on the teaching of race or the on imposition of public health mandates such as mask wearing.

In suburban St. Charles, school board members received emails saying “Your days are numbered. They were compared to Nazis on social media and one found dead animals in her driveway.

The indignation, the vitriol, the bitter accusations and the threats aimed at those whose views are seen as threatening do, yes, sometimes cause them to be fired or prompt them to resign. Other targets simply lose income opportunities

But the real point of the organized obloquy from the far left and the far right is not to harm the reputation or job prospects of individuals.

Many of their victims are actually fine. Author J.K. Rowling – who has been persistently criticized for not being fully on board with the trans agenda – will always have more money than God and a huge audience for whatever she writes. Comedian Dave Chappelle will also be fine. So will professor Abbot at UChicago and those associated with the medical journal and the poetry foundation.

And so will I.

I chose not to participate in the “Tough Times for Local Journalism” panel out of respect for my former colleagues and friends on the panel who were volunteering to give up a weeknight and deserved not to have the panel derailed by some ridiculous protest.

Instead I told my story to close to 20,000 online readers at the Picayune Sentinel.

The main goal was never to silence me.

No, the main goal, the main purpose of most similar forms of attempted cancellation is to strike fear into the hearts of those who have opinions – reasonable, thoughtful, even majority opinions — that cut against group-think but who are comparatively powerless –who don’t have tenure or supportive supervisors or bank accounts that can sustain them through periods where they are deemed too controversial to employ.

The main point is to intimidate them into silence.

What are students at DePaul supposed to think when their campus newspaper rages that someone who offered an opinion that strayed from the view that we should not wait for evidence to convict a Chicago police officer of murder in the court of public opinion,– that that person ought to have no right to speak on any subject at the university?

What are students at Northwestern supposed to think when one of their journalism professors proudly cancels his subscription to the city’s main newspaper in a tantrum in which he says that an opinion that does not match up to his own is tantamount to endorsing the gratuitous killing of children?  And when nobody on the faculty says, “Uh, no, that’s not how journalism works”?

I’ll tell you what they probably think: They probably think , “If I have different views from my most earnest and socially conscious classmates on this or other issues, I’d be wise to shut the hell up.

“Because I’ll be next.”

And that is cancellation. Not the attempted muzzling or browbeating or shaming of one person, but the climate of fear that’s created by such efforts. The message gets out, it silences dozens, scores, hundreds of people whose names and stories you’ll never hear.

Consider one more local story – the story last week about McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski whose private texts to Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently surfaced in a FOIA request. He mentioned the shooting deaths of two young Chicagoans   Adam Toledo and   7-year-old Jaslyn Adams who was collateral damage in an attempted gang hit at  West Side McDonald’s and said, quote “the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say.”

Activists branded him as an ignorant racist and he squeaked out an apology for not having shown “empathy and compassion”

In a text. A message meant for one person.

Somehow, typing with his thumbs, not even using proper punctuation, he neglected to fully contextualize the comprehensive social pathologies that parents must battle in disadvantaged communities, and he therefore blasted over a blunt opinion without any nuance behind it.

And the angry opportunists jumped on it as though it were a fully fleshed out position paper that reflected his corporation’s views.

Well, those of you who have never dashed off a thought in a private communication or conversation that would make you look bad if reprinted in the papers should feel free to get up on your high horse and wag your finger at Chris Kempczinski.

The rest of us should try to have that difficult even at times painful conversation about the undeniable role of parental influences on the young – good and bad — and how we might improve them; how we might help parents on the front end instead of blaming them on the back end.

A difficult conversation without recrimination, without shaming, without piling on, without loaded accusations and name calling.

The title of this talk is “The Perils of Public Discourse” and I hope I haven’t disappointed you by not listing more examples of people who have experienced that peril directly not just on college campuses but also at publications and corporations, at public schools and in town halls.

We don’t have all week or even all day.

In conclusion, if you’re among those who think there is “only one side” that gets to safely express opinions on important, controversial issues, you and I differ.

If you don’t see that this issue, like so many others I’ve touched on today, are legitimately debatable — issues that people of goodwill should be able to discuss in the spirit of intellectual inquiry – then you are part of the problem.

You are part of the reason that public discourse has become increasingly perilous. You are part of the reason our society is so polarized right now, so unable to find common ground, so willing to see politics as a zero-sum game.

But if you’re not afraid of debate –of hearing and engaging with views that differ from your own – then you should speak out when you see the intolerant forces of cancellation agitating or threatening and trying to silence not just those who have spoken, but those who might someday speak

Write to the newspapers, the magazines, the journals, the administrators – get on social media yourself and say …enough…. enough.

And speaking of enough… that’s enough from me today.

Thanks for listening.

Video of the presentation (the speech as delivered) plus the Q&A that followed) is here.