Conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens encouraged students to leave their “safe spaces” and learn to accept their intellectual adversaries during a commencement speech Sunday at an all-men’s school in southern Virginia.
Mr. Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who worked for The Wall Street Journal before being hired by The Times last month, told graduating students at Hampden-Sydney College that they, too, will soon be leaving their comfort zones to face a challenging political environment.
“A month ago, I chose to do my small part in trying to swim against this particular current,” he said. “After 16 productive and happy years as a conservative writer with the staunchly conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, I decided to switch teams to the mostly liberal editorial page of The New York Times.”
Mr. Stephens’ hiring by The Times prompted a boycott against the paper, particularly for his views questioning the threat of climate change. The backlash prompted Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. to send an email last week to readers who canceled their subscriptions, reiterating that the editorial board stands separate from the newsroom.
“In case you’re wondering, my opinions are just as conservative, reactionary and antediluvian as they’ve always been,” Mr. Stephens said in his speech. “My salary is pretty much the same. And, no, I wasn’t pushed out of my last job.
“But I did have a gnawing sense that it was time to stop talking to my own side, preaching to my own choir,” he continued. “I wanted to write for an audience that might not be wholly receptive — and might even be openly hostile — to what I have to say. In short, I thought it was time to leave my own safe space: to take the gamble that I might be able to sway readers not always inclined to agree with me, and to accept the possibility that they, in turn, might sway me.
“So here’s my advice to you: Get out of your own safe spaces,” he said. “Define what your intellectual comfort zone is — and leave it. Enhance your tolerance for discordant voices. Narrow your criteria for what’s beyond the pale. Read the authors or watch the talking heads with whom you disagree. Treat those disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen your own arguments. Resist the temptation to call people names. … Master the civilized art of agreeable disagreement.
“Above all, do not forget that the world would be a duller and darker place if everyone thought as you did, and if all our thoughts were safe ones, and if there were nothing to bestir our minds, and inflame our senses, and rouse our consciences, and churn the warm but too-placid waters in which we swim at our own peril,” Mr. Stephens concluded. “Safe spaces, physical and intellectual, are for children. You are grown-ups now. If your diplomas mean anything, it’s that it is time you leave those spaces behind forever.”
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