The Right Coast

January 15, 2005
Hot Button!!!
By Gail Heriot

Some things make me proud of the University of San Diego School of Law, and the Institute for Law and Philosophy's Conference on the Meaning of Marriage, a two-day conference that ended a few minutes ago, is one of them. It proves that academics can discuss hot button issues the way that ... well ... academics are supposed to--fairly and civilly.

The participants were law professors, philosophers and political scientists with strongly held views on every side of the gay marriage issue. I think it's fair to say that everyone in the room felt some degree of personal stake in the national debate over gay marriage. No one boiled over. Not an uncivil word was spoken.

You're probably thinking that I must be pretty easy to please if I can walk out of an academic conference smiling because the participants didn't come to blows. Well, it also helps that the papers that were presented--by Brian Bix (U. Minnesota), Robin Wilson (U. Maryland), Janet Radcliffe-Richards (University College, London), Christopher Wolfe (Marquette), Nomi Stolzenberg (USC), Richard Arneson (UCSD), Chesire C. Calhoun (Colby College) and Amy Wax (U. Penn)--were uniformly interesting and informative. And it helps that the discussion was stimulating. But, yes, it's true that the absence of incivility is a significant part of why I am happy.

Sadly, I've been to quite a few academic conferences where things weren't so congenial--usually at conferences on affirmative action, which I do a lot of. Here I'm not talking about cases in which non-academics in the audience (students, members of the community) call the speakers "racist" and other choice epithets. I'm talking about cases in which the epithets are being hurled by fellow academics. Last year, for example, I spoke a conference at which a certain well-known left-of-center law professor (no I won't name names; there's no point) harangued a certain well-known right-of-center law professor, claiming that his arguments were offensive and insensitive. In my humble opinion, the accusation was utterly groundless and designed to rattle the more conservative professor. And in that it was somewhat successful. It's a real shame that an academic would stoop to such tactics. Conservative views are already underrepresented in the academy; by jumping on those who express them, those who disagree ensure those views will be even more underrepresented.

I'll blog on some of the substantive issues discussed at the Conference on the Meaning of Marriage (gay marriage, polygamy, etc.) soon, so stay tuned ....