Conservative thinker to Berkeley: Open your heart to new ideas

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, gives a talk about how the competition of ideas can reunite the country. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, gives a talk about how the competition of ideas can reunite the country. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

UC Berkeley students and professors should find “warmth in their heart” for people they don’t agree with and seek to turn contempt or ideological frustration into compassion and understanding, a conservative speaker told groups of administrators and students on Wednesday.

During two nearly 90-minute sessions – one for senior administrators and one for students – author and economist Arthur Brooks encouraged the campus to continue having difficult conversations about free speech and public policy.

“If you don’t have a front-row seat in a vigorous competition of ideas, you’re not getting your money’s worth. You should ask for your money back as students of this university,” he told the group of 50 graduate and undergraduate students.

College campuses and academic institutions, especially, must be essential homes for fact-based debates about important issues facing America: poverty, automation, entitlements and polarization, said Brooks, who is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“I think it is actually possible that intellectual institutions like A.E.I. and Cal Berkeley can help the country make tremendous advances” in political discourse, Brooks told the administrators.

But many Americans remain deeply divided, and struggle to listen to one another, Brooks said. And insincere speakers, like YouTube personality Milo Yiannopoulos, are intent on testing the limits of truth and sincere debate, he said. Yiannopoulos was expected to host a week-long free speech event on campus earlier this year until a student group rescinded his invitation.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, talks with UC Berkeley administrators about how the competition of ideas can reunite the country. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, talks with UC Berkeley administrators. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

“Don’t invite people that are controversialists, that don’t rise to the intellectual level of this university,” he told the students. “If people don’t meet the standard of intellectual excellence, they shouldn’t be invited. You’re hurting our ability to have civil discourse.”

And students who object to divisive speakers shouldn’t take the bait, Brooks said.

So what can be done to fix our polarized culture? Avoid contempt for those you don’t agree with and begin appreciating the motivations of your opponents, Brooks said.

“Do you want better politics? Pivot yourself from contempt to warm-heartedness, especially using gratitude,” he said, echoing a lesson he said he learned from the Dalai Lama. “If you do these things, you are going to be an agent for positive change starting this afternoon.”

While some of the graduate and undergraduate students appreciated Brooks’s perspective, others noted that he glossed over the roles racism and white privilege play when it comes to poverty and political power.

“It alienates me and makes me not want to engage in dialogue, because people are striving for kumbaya, and it is just like, no, there is too much blood on the street,” Kerby Lynch, a graduate student in geography, told Brooks during a question and answer session. “We’re constantly forced to assimilate, with white logic, with white pedagogy.”

Brooks didn’t respond to Lynch’s point during the question and answer session, but later said that Berkeley is a “great university,” with “smart people asking smart questions.”

UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos, who invited Brooks to speak after hearing suggestions that Berkeley wasn’t open to hearing from conservative speakers, said he “appreciated some of the points that came up from Kerby.”

“That’s just the kind of dialogue we should be having,” he said. “I thought it was healthy that way. Nobody has all the answers. (Brooks) presented points of view and some students found affirmation in those, some people found them to be ones they disagreed with very strongly.

“I think that’s all to the good,” he continued. “We need to have more discussion, and some of the students raised great points that deserve by themselves to also have a forum like this in which they’re debated.”

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu