On March 9, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan stood in a classroom at Stanford Law School, waiting for an administrator to finish insulting him, until he could finally speak. He’d been invited as a guest speaker by Stanford’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. But Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach spent the first ten minutes of the event questioning the judge’s worthiness as a guest.

“So, you invited me to speak here, and I’m being heckled nonstop, and I’m just asking for administrative assistance —”

Judge Duncan is cut off by the crowd: 

“Your racism is showing.” “Respect Black women.” 

He concedes to let the dean speak. Questioning whether the “juice [is] worth the squeeze,” Steinbach laments over the need to provide even the most harmful speakers a platform for the sake of free speech.

“I hope you can learn too,” she says, pointing to him. “I hope you can listen through your partisan lens,” she waves her hand in front of her face to pantomime a wall, “and look and see human beings who are asking you to take care.” 

I will not present a case on whether or not Judge Duncan has caused harm. That’s up for debate. Well, not really. I should hope that, when it comes to judges, we debate the merits of their judgment of the law, not the outcomes. If we don’t like the outcomes, that means we need to change the law itself. 

Regardless of their conflation of judicial interpretation and the impacts of the law, those Stanford student protestors and their DEI Dean got something wrong that should worry all of us. They let what they consider high-stakes politics — and hypersensitivity — degrade the values of civility, open-mindedness and humanity. Or, put simply, they let the ends justify the means. Here are some issues with that method.

Firstly, good luck doing that with half the country that is conservative. With your neighbors, friends and family. Good luck speaking with them, good luck living with them, and, most importantly, good luck solving issues and making compromises with them. This applies on both sides. 

Second, do we really believe that our political beliefs are infallible? Really? There’s no room, whatsoever, for debate? And we, as adults, are too fragile to listen? I have my doubts, having seen debates on hot-button issues between smart, well-informed people who simply disagree. Answers are hard to achieve — harder yet when we’re missing multiple perspectives. The reason we battle it out, particularly on college campuses, is because that’s how we test and improve ideas. Not being able to question a belief is an intellectual horror story, not to mention a manipulative way to keep people in the dark about what is true. 

Finally, the people “on the other side” are people. They warrant kindness. We should assume that their intentions are pure, as they tend to be. Does the person who yelled “your racism is showing” honestly think Judge Duncan is akin to the KKK and believes some skin colors are better than others? If so, do they have proof? Accusations of deep moral sin are heavy. I’m reluctant to call someone a pedophile or murderer if they haven’t committed either atrocity. We should be similarly reluctant to call someone ill-intentioned and unable to recognize humanity if they haven’t proven those accusations to be true.

In short, I believe that people are good and capable of great things. Let Stanford serve as a reminder of how not to achieve those ideals. Treasure the learning — and, yes, the disagreement — that we are gifted with. That’s how we prevent harm.

SAHAR TARTAK is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at sahar.tartak@yale.edu.