Matthew Rozsa discusses the importance of championing free speech, even when you find it offensive.
Once upon a time, I was a Republican.
It was only a few years after the September 11th terrorist attacks and, despite my reservations about the war in Iraq, I believed that maintaining a strong national security apparatus was America’s foremost priority. Because I bought the Bush administration’s line of bull that Democrats were isolationist and anti-military, I registered as a Republican on my 18th birthday. It wasn’t until I had a series of thought-provoking conversations with various professors and students at Bard College (my alma mater) – as well as conducted research that was both class-assigned and independent – that I gradually changed my tune.
This brings me to the problem with the liberal activists at Wesleyan University.
After a staff editor at the college’s main newspaper wrote a piece criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a petition has circulated to strip the journal of its school funding. The activists have also pledged to boycott the newspaper, demanded that its staff become diverse, and begun chucking copies of the paper into trash cans whenever it’s distributed throughout the campus. When school president Michael S. Roth published a statement pointed out that “debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” a protester at a student assembly meeting denounced his position as “disgusting.”
Since plenty of media outlets have talked about the vital importance of free speech to both our democratic society and our education system, I’m going to set those arguments aside and instead make an equally important point that often gets overlooked: If you want to persuade people, you must do so by listening to and engaging with them.
When I was a Republican at Bard College (which the Princeton Review had labeled as one of the most left-wing schools in the country), there were plenty of students who harassed me for my beliefs. Usually I just ignored them, but when they did get to me, my reaction was never to think, “Well, if this many people hate me, I must be wrong.” Instead my emotional instinct was to go on the defensive – to double-down on my opinions, regardless of the facts behind them, if for no other reason than to spite the people who were making my life so hellish. If anything, their viciousness made me more certain that I was correct, not less so. Nothing fortifies certainty like a strong sense of martyrdom.
This didn’t mean my opinions were correct, of course. Similarly, if you take the time to read “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think” (the Wesleyan op-ed that started it all), prepare to be bombarded by some of the most insultingly flawed logic and inaccurate information you’ll ever see in a respected college newspaper. It starts off with a ridiculous analogy (comparing a rare act of violence by a #BlackLivesMatter activist with the regular violence inflicted by police officers against racial minorities), accuses social justice advocates of “creat[ing] the conditions for these individuals [rioters and looters] to exploit for their own personal gain,” and claims liberals want to lump good cops in with the bad ones.
This isn’t a comprehensive deconstruction of everything wrong with that article (that would require an entire op-ed of its own), but you probably get the gist of it here. Its author, Bryan Stascavage, may or may not be a racist, but he has no qualms about over-simplifying the views of racial minorities. His argument is loathsome, through and through.
It doesn’t directly threaten anyone, however, and when it comes to questions of censorship, that’s really the only point that matters. Yes, his reasoning is flawed and offensive, but insisting that having objectionable opinions violates the “safe space” needed for other students is just plain asinine. No matter where you go in life, you will inevitably encounter people whose views not only differ from your own, but make your blood boil in rage. If that reality makes you feel “unsafe,” then your best bet is to avoid any kind of discussion on controversial subjects.
On the other hand, if you want to effectively combat offensive views, you need to do so by presenting a calm and reasonable counterargument of your own. Even though you may not change the perspective of the initial perpetrators (Stascavage, for example, does not seem like someone open to persuasion), you can influence and enlighten others who may have been leaning in one direction on a certain issue but will now be more inclined to feel another way. In my case, even though I was turned off by the rude and confrontational behavior of some of Bard’s more vociferous liberal activists, I was intrigued by the logic found in many of my course readings, classroom discussions, and talks with other students. They convinced me to become more liberal on foreign policy (my big reason for being conservative in the first place), and because I’d always held left-wing views on economic and social topics, that proved to be enough.
This is no doubt a main reason why the director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, observed to U.S News & World Report, “It is worrisome when you see students wanting to silence disagreeable opinions.” By attempting to shut down debate and punish dissenters, they undermine their ability to change minds instead of enhancing it. In the process they not only embarrass themselves, but betray the very values that they ostensibly wish to advance. If their goal is to advance the cause of liberalism, they will have no qualms about allowing noxious ideas to enter the public sphere and then combating them with human decency and common sense. By instead trying to purge their campus of any objectionable content, they not only give the bad ideas a moral high ground that they frankly don’t deserve, but diminish their chances of convincing others of seeing reason.
Their cause, and our campuses, deserve better.