Is free speech under attack at college campuses? | The Tylt
Is free speech under attack at college campuses?
Earlier this year, Allison Stanger, professor of political science at Middlebury College, found herself in the middle of the free speech debate after students launched violent demonstrations against controversial speaker Charles Murray. Murray has been widely described as a white supremacist and eugenicist. She identifies the two core arguments at the heart of the free speech debate:
The student activists who shut down the Charles Murray discussion at Middlebury reject the idea that all ideas should be treated equally. Following the incident, students released a statement in response to a separate statement put out by professors (who were defending free speech). Here's what they argued:
The Enlightenment values that free speech advocates are supposedly defending also say that all humans are inherently equal. Discussions begin from that idea, not the idea that all ideas are equally valid. There's no point in engaging with someone whose ideas are flawed beyond fixing.
We contend that free, reasoned, and civil discussion are certainly necessary for genuine higher learning, but that the speaker in question denies the basic equality of those invited to engage in such discourse, and therefore undermines the foundation of such discourse. By protesting the characterization of the speaker’s research as worthwhile of academic inquiry, students did more to defend the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse at Middlebury than did the administration and co-sponsors of this event.
Debating these ideas at face value simply elevates bigoted viewpoints and gives them validity. Students are rejecting wholesale bigotry and see no value in debating its merits. Sometimes, there aren't two sides to an issue—this is one of those times.
By elevating bigotry and engaging with it in open debate under the misguided view that all ideas must be respected, we risk elevating biased opinions with no solid, factual foundation into the realm of “knowledge” and affirming the unconscious biases many hold.
Students argue language can be violent, contrary to what free speech advocates say. Language plays a huge role in society and universities must acknowledge their role in allowing, what students deem, hateful and violent speech into the school community. In a statement, students at Middlebury College quoted Toni Morrison on language and violence:
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge… Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
Finally, students argue their actions are not a matter of politics or social justice. It's about ensuring the basic equality of all people in their community and defending all individuals—instead of privileging the rights of those who hold hateful ideas.
Surely we can distinguish political and social agendas from the fundamental human agenda of insisting upon the basic equality of all individuals. Refusing to stand by a core tenet as simple as this one – opening it up for debate and civil discourse – paves the way for hate and prejudice. A commitment to open-mindedness is compatible with the decision to reject intolerance.
In response to that letter, Allison Stanger, the professor caught in the crossfire between students and Charles Murray, argues the situation is much more complicated than what students outlined. Regardless of whether students accept or reject opposing viewpoints, people are engaging with these ideas and that in itself should be reason enough to hold the debate. Ignoring ideas does not make them go away. Policing speech and thought is dangerous and stifles the free exchange of ideas.
The moderate middle at Middlebury currently feels it cannot speak out on the side of free inquiry without fear of being socially ostracized as racist. Most alarming, I have heard some students and faculty denounce reason and logic as manifestations of white supremacy. This is not a productive learning environment for anyone. This is not what the life of the mind is supposed to provide.
While it might be popular among students, more recent positions on speech are not fundamentally universal. All ideas must be tolerated and discussed on their own merits. Writing off Murray or Milo—or any other speaker—as a white supremacist whose ideas are not worth discussing is essentially preaching to the choir. It obscures potentially dangerous ideas and allows them to fester and grow in the dark. If these ideas are truly odious and false, as students argue, then discussing these ideas openly and candidly will do far more to tear these people down.
The university cannot renounce enlightenment values and continue to be a university. It must be a battleground for competing ideas, not a megaphone for a particular point of view. The growth that liberal education inspires is never comfortable, and learning is a lifelong process. All of us can benefit from civil engagement with those with whom we disagree.
Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, writing about Milo's disastrous appearance at UC Berkeley, points out wrong-headed views held by Milo and Murray are still protected under the umbrella of free speech. Brushing all the intellectual arguments aside, at the end of the day, the law protects the rights of these speakers to say what they believe.
Yiannopoulos’s behavior at the Milwaukee campus sounds disgusting. But as Dirks wrote in response, “critical statements and even the demeaning ridicule of individuals are largely protected by the Constitution.” If they were not, a lot of comedians would have trouble performing live. And even if the targeted UWM student has grounds to sue, Berkeley cannot prevent the College Republicans from hosting Yiannopoulos because of the possibility that he might do something like that again.