For a second year, STOSSEL came out to the 5th Annual International Students For Liberty Conference to film an episode of the show, providing an opportunity for pro-liberty students to question Stossel and his guests. I am very proud that the show considered the ISFLC worthy of its time and investment. And I think it offered an incredible opportunity for students to interact with leaders of libertarianism and engage in a public dialogue with leading figures of views with which we disagree. However, I want to take a moment to use the reaction of some individuals in the audience during the filming and in response to the airing of the episode as a lesson for how to best advance the cause of liberty: If you want others to take you seriously, you must take them seriously.
First, the reaction to the show’s airing. The show started with Stossel interviewing Cato VP David Boaz and then Reason.tv editor Nick Gillespie. Later in an attempt to engage counter-points to libertarianism he interviewed Ken Kuklowski of the Family Research Council and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. Those portions received a mix of cheers and boos in between very pointed questions from the student audience. The show then concluded with another segment with Boaz followed by a musical performance.
Over this the weekend, a youtube clip of the STOSSEL episode was released with the title “John Bolton Dodges Question; Insults Anti-War Veteran”. Reddit and other sources picked it up and have claimed Fox cut out boos following Bolton’s answer and replaced them with applause.
I was also in the audience and must disagree with this account of what happened. Yes, at certain points, there was booing of Bolton and earlier guest Ken Kuklowski. However, STOSSEL did not edit these boos out (you can hear booing throughout the show), and they did not cover up boos with cheering in response to the question shown in this video. After Bolton answered the veteran’s initial question, the questioner attempted to engage in a debate with Bolton. Stossel then cut off the debate between the veteran and Bolton to allow other individuals to engage Bolton. The audience then politely clapped as is appropriate at the end of such an exchange.
But don’t just take my (and Trevor Burrus’) word for it. Stossel has released the raw footage: http://www.foxbusiness.com/on-air/stossel/blog/2012/02/27/unedited-students-liberty-video-0
John Stossel and his team could have cut out the question entirely, but they included it in the show because they thought it was important. Yes, they edited down the full exchange (all shows are edited, and 2 hours of footage needed to be trimmed down to 40 minutes). But there were no boos in response to Bolton with that question, and they did not distort the general sense of what happened. In Stossel’s words, “That was no conspiracy”. Such accusations only undermine the legitimacy of the person making the accusation and other ideas that he or she espouses. By making such an inaccurate and irresponsible accusation, the unbiased observer is given good reason to question the seriousness of other views she holds. Instead of looking for excuses to disregard others, a better strategy is to find reasons to engage them, show them they ought to engage you, and make clear that your ideas are stronger.
Second, the reaction of some audience members during the filming. While Bolton and Kuklowski presented their views, some audience members engaged in excessive booing and shouting. The STOSSEL Show invited these individuals as guests to encourage a meaningful, public dialogue between libertarian students and some of the best advocates of the other sides. How often does a group of libertarian students get the chance to question a former Ambassador to the UN on foreign policy? It is an unparalleled opportunity for young libertarians to develop their views and highlight the strength of our work. And for that reason, both Bolton and Kuklowski deserve credit for walking into the lion’s den. When an excessive amount of booing happened, seemingly to silence these speakers, I cringed. Many other SFL leaders shared my same feeling of embarrassment (as well as other conference attendees).
I strongly disagreed with many of the positions advocated by both speakers. However, there are good and bad ways to express disagreement. Since SFL’s founding, we have encouraged toleration of and respect for divergent opinions as a guiding principle of the organization. Typically, we speak of the importance of this with regard to the liberty movement: there are many strains of thought to the philosophy of liberty that we have helped bring to the same table for the first time. Objectivists, Austrian Economists, Chicago School Economists, political activists, voluntaryists, and many more are all part of the SFL network and have respectful debates on the points where we disagree. But it is important to apply that same principle of toleration and respect beyond the liberty movement, to those with whom we disagree more than we agree. It is not only possible to actively work against the implementation of another person’s ideological views as public policy while still having open, civil discourse with them on those issues, it is essential to do so.
If you believe in the soundness of your ideas, do not worry about them being exposed to the criticism of the marketplace of ideas. Only those views that are so weak that they cannot stand on their own need to prohibit other voices from challenging them. More importantly, it is a fundamental aspect of individual liberty for people to believe and speak as they want. When engaging others with whom you disagree, an important demonstration of respect for their liberty is to engage them in rational discourse. In other words, respect the other person, even if you do not respect the idea they are advocating.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting the audience should have remained silent or applauded everything the speakers were saying simply because they were speakers. A certain level of booing was appropriate. But there are different types of booing. One type is a boo that expresses disagreement to illustrate audience preference. If clapping and cheering are encouraged to express approval of something a speaker says, it is legitimate to allow and encourage booing to express disagreement. However, this kind of booing must be done from a position of respect for the other person’s right to speak (given their invitation to the show by Stossel). It is a kind very different from one that is an attempt to silence the speaker, which some individuals in the audience at the conference seemed to want to do. A speaker on a television show trying to persuade audience members does not deserve the silent endorsement of that audience. But they do deserve to be able to present their position and be treated with the respect of debate and discourse. Differentiating these two types of boos may be difficult and nuanced; vocal inflection, pitch, volume, and general demeanor are all factors. But it is crucial to make the effort to make that differentiation.
So, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Ambassador John Bolton and Ken Kuklowski for any audience reaction at the filming of the show that may have seemed to inhibit a meaningful dialogue.
I would also like to take this opportunity to offer a message to those audience members who participated in such action: Your voice is more meaningful than the status as an audience member of a television show can ever give it. The message of liberty deserves a voice stronger and more respectable than a “boo.” Other people will only take you seriously and listen to your message if you take other people seriously and listen to their messages as well.
This lesson applies beyond the television show setting. I have written before about the importance of persuasion to successfully promote liberty. The presentation of an idea ought to reflect the importance of that idea. The way we treat others who hold divergent views ought to be the same as we would want them to treat us even though we hold divergent views. The strength of the student movement for liberty’s voice comes from the substance of our convictions, not the volume of our orations. We must never forget that, whether as audience members of a show, participants in a formal debate, or conversants in a dorm room. The greatest threat to liberty can be ourselves if we do not represent our ideas or engage others with the respect that they deserve.