By Tom Lebert, AU SPA ’20
American society places debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas based in truth to succeed. Dinesh D’Souza’s event on American University’s campus proved that debate and discussion are imperfect platforms and can easily be manipulated to serve one side’s ideas over another.
When the conservative commentator and filmmaker spoke this past Wednesday about what he called “fake history,” he challenged students who disagreed with his statements to discuss with him in the Q&A section rather than protesting and disrupting the event.
I attended Wednesday night’s event and considered protesting to oppose D’Souza’s invitation to campus by the student group Young Americans for Freedom and the ideas he spreads. I decided not to protest during the event as others did, but instead planned to ask a question during the Q&A section. The event ended before me and many other students in line could ask questions.
Following the event, I asked an executive board member from Young Americans for Freedom about his denial of members of the LGBTQ+ community being targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. Another executive board member approached me in an intimidating manner and demanded I leave the event, using expletives and names to make his point clear. I posed my question to him, which he dodged before telling me to ask him if he cared. I asked, and he responded “no” before turning around and walking away.
At an event where the featured speaker calls for attendees to debate him and the group who invited him claims to promote free speech, it is extremely hypocritical for an executive board member to run away from the questioning that they asked for.
D’Souza claimed that the students who protested and disrupted Wednesday’s event were too afraid to debate him and others with his views. After attempting to do so, I would argue that those who protested knew that D’Souza’s lack of credibility and unwillingness to offer an even field for discussion meant that debate would be worthless and ineffective.
D’Souza wasn’t looking to present his view alongside verifiable facts and have a discussion as he claimed at the event. He was looking to turn it into a podium to push falsehoods and ideas not based in reality knowing that he controlled the conversation through the structure of the event.
It’s important to understand that some speech has value and other speech is worthless. Students are often taught early in life that credibility is important when making an argument, whether it be in speech or in writing. Facts that can be verified must be presented to build credibility. D’Souza has presented the opposite, both in the past and in his speech on Wednesday.
From what is essentially partial Holocaust denial to a repeatedly-disproven description of the evolution of political parties in the United States, D’Souza has torn down his own credibility. He has no background in history, and his writings have been panned by numerous historians.
A man who has repeatedly presented falsehoods as fact has no business speaking to a group of students about what is and is not historical fact. Furthermore, D’Souza’s speech was focused on using his version of history to build a political argument. It’s clear that D’Souza took advantage of his ability to receive a platform he called a discussion to twist and even blatantly misrepresent facts to make an argument in bad faith.
This is the problem with the glorification of debate and discussion—such platforms are imperfect and can often be taken advantage of. Discussion and debate can quickly turn into a one-sided advertisement for one side’s view while another side is criticized for not engaging in this uneven playing field. This exact sequence of events unfolded at the D’Souza event.
It is critical to understand the limitations of debate and discussion in order to advocate for it. Heavily regulated debate—including equal speaking time for all parties and fact-checking by neutral arbiters, among numerous other checks—can be beneficial for sharing ideas and understanding another side’s views, but rarely plays out in the real world. D’Souza asked for a discussion, but even in the Q&A section of the event, follow-up questions were left to his discretion, D’Souza spoke for long periods of time with no ability to check his claims, and as a result, discussion was utterly neutered. No value could be derived from such an uneven and unequal exchange.
The Young Americans for Freedom event on Wednesday included no even-sided debate or discussion. Supporting debate and discussion should mean supporting even debate and discussion that requires participants to present actual truth and make reasoned arguments. Young Americans for Freedom, Dinesh D’Souza, and others cannot claim to support these platforms when they take advantage of them to push ideas that cannot be defended when they’re able to be checked.
Tom Lebert is a sophomore at American University majoring in CLEG and minoring in Economics. He currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Residence Hall Association and is the former Treasurer of the AU College Democrats. He also started his high school debate team and served as Vice Chairman of the club for over a year.