Allowing Speech We Hate Essential

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Allowing Speech We Hate Essential

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Supreme Court Associate Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1929)

It isn’t easy to listen to the ideas of those with whom we vigorously disagree. In fact, these days we tend to shelter ourselves in the houses of thought where we are sure to hear opinions that reinforce what we already believe and hold dear.

Those who consider themselves conservatives are devotees of Fox News while those with liberal tendencies favor MSNBC. On the internet we connect with likeminded people. Search engines, such as Google, help us do this by learning what we like and putting it on the first page of searches we do on social and political issues.

But only being exposed to those ideas with which agree is building walls to challenging thoughts that might give us new insights and give us new perspectives that help our frame of reference on the world expand. Those new ideas might make us more tolerant of others; more willing to listen and compromise.

On today’s college campuses we are seeing intolerance express itself in ways that are dismaying for those of us with a more liberal outlook. Students angered by speakers coming to their campuses whose conservative ideas they find repulsive are not just protesting, they are demanding those individuals be prevented from getting on stage. Should the school administration refuse to ban them from campus, they disrupt the program by shouting down the speakers.

At Becknell University recently graduating students turned their backs on Republican Vice President Mike Pence and walked out. At another graduation ceremony Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was booed. Conservative firebrands Ann Coulter and Milo Yianopoulos have been booed, banned from campuses and met with violent protests.

At Middlebury College in Vermont this past March violent student protesters packed the hall shouting down speaker Charles Murray. A person who has written about and supported racial superiority of whites (which he eventually admitted was wrong,) and who has been taken sexists and anti-gay stands (no longer,) Murray was forced to leave the campus by protestors. The liberal college professor who was supposed to interview Murray, challenging his positions, was injured by a protestor as she escorted him off the campus.

Writing in the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper for the University of Southern California, student Zoe Cheng takes offense at the “older Americans” who would lecture students on the need to tolerate what she and fellow students have determined to be hate speech.

“Campus protest is less about crafting a ‘safe space’ than about utilizing vigor and collective passion to organize against a set of ideas that are so clearly backward,” she writes. “And to ask college students to be quiet — moreover, that they politely let Murray talk: That implies inaction. And this is dangerous territory to tread. Because where, then, does this being quiet turn into something far more lethal: passivity?

“If university life is preparation for the real world, and students are to tolerate these ideas now in their four years, then where does this take them when they graduate? If they are taught to be quiet now, when will it be acceptable for them to speak up?”

No one is asking that students be trained in passivity, that they don’t protest to object to speech they find offensive, or that they don’t write in their student and community newspapers letters or editorials that challenge what they see as hate speech. That is exactly what they should be learning to do.

Colleges should be teaching students to be curious, thoughtful, and insightful so they can craft arguments that are persuasive to prevent people from following those like Murray. Passionate anger in the face of bigotry, racism and intolerance is not all bad. But when it would be used to deny others their right of free speech, it goes too far. College is a place that prepares you for the real world – one in which people have the right to speak and write what they believe and where your protests can’t shut them up.

“College students are informed and intelligent, rhetorical and incisive,” she writes. “They will not tolerate hatred, will not give hateful people a platform and will continue to protest bigotry with all the force of the intellectual and argumentative tools they have been given.” We find this argument contradictory. Those very “intellectual and argumentative tools” are thrown out the dormitory window when anger and intolerance are used to shout down speakers with whom they disagree.

Whose definition of hateful, backward and bigoted do we allow to define the rights of free speech? If you begin to define the beliefs of others as below the dignity to have the same rights you enjoy under the First Amendment, then they have the right to define you in such limiting terms as well.

It was New York Times columnist Frank Bruni who raised Cheng’s ire by writing that the protests at Middlebury and other campuses were “…about emotional coddling. It’s about intellectual impoverishment. Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.”

Bruni goes on to quote Van Jones, a Democratic activist and commentator who spoke recently at the University of Chicago:

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he told the students. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

We don’t need more of people and political parties isolating themselves in their corners. That is why we are where we are politically today – ever more at each other’s political throats with no room for compromising or understanding.

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