The Market of Markets

The onus is upon us to maintain a vibrant marketplace of ideas

In America, it seems the dictum that “talking about politics is rude” has achieved the status of a universal truth. Even as our long election prompted chatter about Jeremiah Wright and Tina Fey, the culture in the United States still seems to be turned against more open, argumentative conversation about the political world.

But nothing could be less rude, or more essential, than just this kind of conversation. This prejudicial attitude does a tremendous disservice to America. As we begin a new administration in a troubling economic and global climate, political discourse must be reintroduced into the spheres of everyday life.

From a theoretical standpoint, the frank discussion of ideas can only help our society in the long run. It is critical that the market of ideas be kept as diverse and as lively as possible, and that cultural conventions not be allowed to resign the United States to intellectual stagnation, as has happened in the past. As a country, we’ve never needed a robust market of ideas more, and nothing fosters such a market more than candid dialogue.

A sphere that politics has not traditionally been allowed to pervade is the dinner-table discussion. I was happy to learn that, at Harvard, people tend to openly break that “rule.” Issues are argued, ideas shared, and in-depth analysis of current events discussed during meals. Implicit in this violation there is (or should be) a collective agreement not to become offended or incensed; such dialogue ought to be valued as a learning experience, not derailed by hurt feelings.

Of course, there is the possibility that severely negative, perhaps even dangerous ideas may arise from any discussion. As hard as they try to be tolerant, people will inevitably be left feeling uncomfortable or ill at ease. However, the net social value arising from the experiment will undoubtedly be positive.

This suggestion shouldn’t be understood as an endorsement of single-minded politicos whose interests don’t extend beyond Washington, nor should it be construed as in support of a climate of ideological gridlock. If American voters are to commit to enlivening our market of ideas, it should be as thoughtful and engaged citizens, always willing to learn something new.

As Harvard students, we should set a high standard for ourselves and lead by example. We should openly discuss politics and have cogent arguments for the positions we hold. We should listen to other people’s opinions and consider them against our own with an open mind. In the end, Americans want to remain vibrant and dynamic as a political entity, and to retain the spirit of activism that has recently seemed to flicker. With that end in mind, we shouldn’t let the buzz around the election fade into the same, safe conversations about television or sports, but rather sustain a climate of active political discussion—even around the dinner table.

Anthony J. Bonilla ’12, an editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.