Bret Stephens, AB’95
Bret Stephens, AB’95, a New York Times columnist, received the UChicago Alumni Association’s Professional Achievement Award in 2014. (Photography by Meiling Jin)
“The joy of argument”

An excerpt from a speech to the Class of 2023.

This is a speech about speaking your mind when other people don’t want you to.

To those who just walked out, I thank them for not seriously disrupting my speech. And while I’m sorry they won’t hear me out, I completely respect their right to protest any speaker they dislike, including me, so long as they honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect, and honor.

To those of you who have chosen to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge—an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.

Decades ago, the art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “the herd of independent minds.” It’s a lineI think about often.

The herd of independent minds are the people who say they make up their own minds when it comes to politics, and yet somehow, and generally without exception, arrive at precisely the same long list of political conclusions as millions of others.

The point is: There are very few people who don’t see themselves as independent thinkers. There are even fewer people who are.

This is true wherever you go, in most walks of life. But it seems to be especially true in places and institutions heavily populated by people with elite educations—the kinds of places and institutions that many of you will soon be a part of. Groupthink is the affliction of those who ought to be—and often think of themselves as—the least vulnerable to it.

Some people are inveterate truth-seekers. They are almost congenitally willing to risk rejection, ostracism, even hatred for the sake of being right. But most people just want to belong, and the most essential elements of belonging are agreeing and conforming. They engage in what’s known as “preference falsification,” pretending to enjoy things they don’t, or subscribe to ideas they secretly reject. They go along to get along, because the usual emotional companion to intellectual independence isn’t pride or self-confidence. It’s loneliness and sometimes crippling self-doubt.

Is that a price you are willing to pay?

Institutions and their leaders invariably say they support independent thinking and free speech—but only when that support is easy and costs them nothing, not when it’s hard and requires them to take a stand. They want provocative thinking—provided it isn’t too pointed and only offends the people who don’t count in their social network. They want to foster a culture of argument and intellectual challenge—so long as nobody ever says the wrong thing and feelings don’t get hurt.

But this doesn’t always have to be the case. Institutions can, in fact, practice what they preach.

It’s called leadership. You have one magnificent example of it right on this stage, in the person of John Boyer [AM’69, PhD’75]. And you have had a historic example of it in the person of Bob Zimmer.

In its obituary for President Zimmer, the New York Times mentioned that, in his career as a distinguished mathematician, his main interests lay in “ergodic theory” and something called “Lie groups.” I don’t know what those are, either.

But I think it’s notable that a man whose academic career was probably the most insulated from any kind of political pressure so profoundly and intuitively understood the importance of protecting intellectual freedom throughout the whole academy. To adapt Martin Luther King Jr.’s line about injustice, Bob knew that a threat to independent thinking anywhere was a threat to independent thinking everywhere, including in abstruse mathematics and the hard sciences.

In short, Bob created an institutional culture that, as Salman Rushdie once said, serves as a safe space for thought, not a safe space from thought. And my question to you, both in the audience and on this stage, is whether you will take inspiration from it in your own lives and careers.

I hope you do, whether you choose to lead a private or a public life. And I hope you do so by writing your own version of the Joy of Argument—which is like a similarly titled book from 50 years ago, updated for an era that has become curiously and depressingly afraid of both. The joy of argument is not about “owning” or “destroying” or otherwise trying to disparage, caricature, or humiliate your opponent. On the contrary, it should be about opposition and mutuality, friction and delight, the loosening of inhibitions and the heightening of concentration, playfulness and seriousness, and sometimes even a truly generative act.

Yes: I am comparing great arguments to great sex.

These things you’ve all been doing at the University of Chicago for the past few years—discussing and debating and interrogating and doubting and laughing and thinking harder and better than you ever did before—isn’t the antithesis of fun. It’s the essence of it. It’s the uniquely joyful experience of being authentically and expressively and unashamedly yourself and, at the same time, having a form of honest and intimate contact with others who, in their own ways, are being authentically and expressively and unashamedly themselves.

Watch the video of Stephens’s Class Day speech.