Letter: A Reply to President Floros’s Call for Respectful Debate

Associate Professor of International Relations

Department of Government (Courtesy Photo)

Associate Professor of International Relations Department of Government (Courtesy Photo)

“I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

—Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1849

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, 1787

I have just read President Floros’s latest President’s Communication, in which he avers with eloquence and quiet passion that NMSU’s colloquies over contentious issues “need to be consistent in messaging and respectful in tone.” “[T]he heart of democracy,” declares President Floros, “is a shared conviction that we don’t have to agree in order to work together for a common cause, but we must be respectful of each other.” To which I respectfully reply, Would that it were universally true; but alas, it is not.

To be sure, there are many circumstances that not only allow for measured debate but call for it. Diplomats speak of utilizing “a velvet glove” in negotiations and other intercourse; and in domestic politics, including in the academic milieu, the ideal, and under ordinary circumstances the best practice, is to be able to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

That is, except when death is on the line (as the great Italian philosopher Vizzini put it). The full expression in foreign relations is “a mailed fist within a velvet glove,” its force ready to be unleashed in diplomatic extremis; and there are many points in American history when the stakes have been so high that moderation in debate has not merely been inappropriate, but in fact a perverse enabler of heinous official policies and private behavior.

An incomplete list includes such historical moral outrages as slavery; the genocide and displacement of Native Americans; white supremacy and its attendant horrors of Jim Crow segregation, pervasive discrimination, anti-Black race riots, and lynchings; the xenophobic 1880s-1960s immigration policies that viciously discriminated against Asians, eastern and southern Europeans, and Mexicans, and consigned Jewish would-be refugees to the ovens of Auschwitz; and a decade of governmental apathy and indeed antipathy toward those infected with AIDS, which came close to equalling the staggering US death toll of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

We are now at one of those awful historic points, thrice over. America faces a three-headed Cerberus of existential crises which includes government policies toward incarcerated immigrants that are patently inhumane and in some cases tantamount to war crimes; pandemic health safety policies, or the lack thereof, that are at best a danger to public health and at worst both suicidal and homicidal, and which inordinately threaten vulnerable minority group members; and the long, long overdue eyes-wide-open reckoning for myopic white Americans—every last one of them, including this writer—with four centuries of systemic, systematic discrimination, persecution, and often-murderous brutality toward African Americans.

In the manner of Diogenes I search, lamp in hand, not for an honest man, but for agitators for fundamental positive change who were “respectful in tone.” Were Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison civil? Was Tatanka Iyotake civil? (Ask George Custer.) Russell Means? John Redhouse? Wong Chin Foo? Larry Kramer? Ida B. Wells? Malcolm X? Stokely Carmichael? Angela Davis? Richard Pryor? Was Dr. Martin Luther King moderate and non-confrontational? The answer in every case is No. (And did you really need to ask about Richard Pryor?)

Indeed, while Dr. King was resolute to the very end in his commitment to nonviolent but deliberately society-stressing civil disobedience (disobedience), he admonished an interviewer in 1966 that “the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

These are hardly emollient words, but then Dr. King doubtless kept in the back of his mind Christ’s declaration in Matthew 10:34, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

We must consider the hidden costs of an unyielding fealty to politeness as an unalloyed good. Most basically, we must fear that every civil word which doesn’t push society to advance in justice, decency, and existential safety for those who suffer a paucity of them instead indirectly contributes to suffering or death, because in their respectful restraint they lack the blunt force to shake America’s politicians and public alike out of the complacency that has insidiously facilitated malign policies, practices, and perceptions.

How do we respectfully ask immigration law enforcement agents and the bureaucrats behind them who abuse and torture refugees to stop abusing and torturing? How do we respectfully ask those who coldly value ideology or economics over human lives to fear the stain of blood on their hands more than the defeat of their favored candidate or the blow to their institutions’ finances? How do we respectfully ask police who blithely shoot, asphyxiate, club, mace and taser African Americans to stop their assaults and murders?

Are these questions not ludicrous on the face of it? Does not the preservation of human safety and life call for something far more potent and jarring than polite, respectful debate with those who would maliciously or foolishly imperil both?

The answer seems self-evident. As Dr. King put it, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (Do not pass lightly over the imperative word demand—hardly an ingredient in a colloquy in which politesse is elevated to a sine qua non.)

This is true whether the freedom being struggled for is basic civil rights, or the freedom not to be abused and tortured when seeking to enter and live in America, or the freedom not to fall ill or die in a pandemic in the service of someone else’s ideology or bottom line, or the freedom not to be assaulted, maimed, or murdered for [fill-in-the-blank]ing while Black.

It is about time for NMSU’s faculty and administrators to embrace impoliteness, incivility, and yes, disrespect in the cause of pushing for—demanding—essential changes in public policy and private perception that will make the difference between safety and endangerment, health and sickness, justice and iniquity, decency and brutality, and life and death.


Neal M. Rosendorf, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of International Relations

Department of Government

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