There’s a lot of exercising of free speech these days. And I love it. Well, I love the positive kind. And the kind which provokes us to better ourselves.
Of course, I’m not into the kind which denigrates and destroys. The kind which labels and causes emotional harm. That kind I struggle to defend.
I’m also much less interested in the kind which silences others, however. You know the kind. When a controversial speaker comes to a college campus and a group of students speak out and prevent the person from speaking. We’ve had several high profile examples this academic year and it seems like there’s an epidemic. So I have the hardest time with this kind of free speech: that silencing by pundits who love speech, as long as it isn’t protest.
All the think pieces which proliferate after the event, freely expressing their love for speech, speaking, writing, pontificating, trying to protect the likes of Ann Coulter and Charles Murray. But do they listen to the students? Is anyone listening to the students?
Two years ago, my alma mater invited Dr. Ben Carson, famous neurosurgeon to speak at its annual Honors Day event. I wasn’t happy.
As an alumnus, I had many reasons to think this man shouldn’t be speaking at my school that day. The several unapologetically toxic things about LGBTQ persons he has said bothered me. I didn’t want my school to give him a place to speak uninterrupted. Not because I hate free speech, but because I thought of my friends, who two decades ago came to this community and had to deal with bigotry from the local Campus Crusade for Christ. I thought of my friends who would gather at Theta Chi or Kappa Iota houses on campus because they knew they could be themselves there.
I thought of several friends who prepared presentations for Honors Day and whose achievement I shared in celebrating, knowing Dr. Carson thinks they are deviants and willfully opposing God’s will.
This is what was on my mind when I wrote the president and asked him to uninvite Dr. Carson.
Not because of liberal politics, but because of these students. Students who worked hard all year long for this day, this celebration of academic achievement, of “scholarly and creative activities” and it is they who should be the focus. As much as I didn’t like the idea of Dr. Carson speaking there at all, what I rejected was that he would be speaking at this particular event on that particular day. That they would be at all, in the least bit connected.
For here was Dr. Carson, in the midst of a presidential run, fresh off another crazy, unsubstantiated statement. I think this time it was the pyramids being built to hold the grain Joseph had harvested in Genesis. And here again, his lack of scholarly activity was on full display. He was showing in public an approach to public debate anathema to our college’s ethics.
The question of free speech at the macro level is always treated as an absolute and generally demands we respect and give space for its free expression. And yes, protests of speech do have fascist tendencies. But so do “protest zones” and the deployment of SWAT teams to curb public protests. So do rules which restrict the words children can use in school and school uniforms. And these expressions of speech are easily defended and persist.
But down at the micro level, where these speeches and these protests are occurring, the better question isn’t about free speech, but what it is we’re subjecting our students to.
My best friend’s commencement was as boring as you expect from being cooped up in a hot gym at the beginning of summer. I was there with his family and friends and probably more excited for him than he was. I wasn’t thrilled to find out that a politician was the guest speaker for the commencement, but I tried to give him a shot.
This speaker’s presence was no surprise given the president of the college was also president of the local Republican Party. Then-Senator Spencer Abraham, the commencement speaker, served one term before losing to Debbie Stabenow in 2000. I was bored, but when he began to speak, well, bored isn’t the right word for it.
Livid. Disgusted. Outraged. Belittled. Shamed. Courted.
These begin to tell the story of my emotions.
The speech was lame and condescending and not the least bit memorable beyond his pathetic attempts to win the room. But I did remember how little it sounded like it was about the students or helping the students. Or how little it celebrated achievement or honored education. It sounded like the thing it was: a re-election campaign speech.
As we bemoan the protest and castigate the protestors, can we at least stop and consider what it is they are specifically protesting and why?
Hate speech and politics of division
I’m not condoning physical violence or threats of violence, as have occurred. I condemn them. It is always so attractive to give nearly all of our attention to the bad reaction and virtually none to the violent and toxic rhetoric it seeks to silence (because hey, free speech!). Far less attractive to recognize what it is these paid speeches represent to the students and alumni.
So many are eager to spout endlessly about protecting the speech of those wishing someone would assassinate our former president or call my brothers and sisters abominations. And they are so eager to shut up the students and force them to listen to this junk to somehow improve them in the hearing. I don’t buy it. It’s as if we must ingest a poison to make the body healthier; that this is simply a Left/Right issue and these delicate snowflakes can’t handle ever hearing a conservative viewpoint.
But these aren’t conservative viewpoints, representative of well-reasoned and scholarly study.
These aren’t different takes on a shared history, citing qualified sources and subject to academic rigor. These are anti-intellectual provocateurs giving speeches on college campuses for profit. Some of them are optional for students, but some of them are mandatory, or commencements.
If I graduated from Notre Dame in 2017, I would’ve walked out on Vice President Pence for Purvi Patel and the countless Hoosiers hurt by his divisive and punitive politics.
These actions aren’t budding fascism or privileged snowflakes unable to hear hard truths. These are intelligent and astute students rejecting anti-intellectualism, pseudoscience, and the politics of hate. And this junk is forced upon them under the cover of free speech.
I can think of no reason why Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos should ever have a microphone in their hand on a college campus. Theirs is neither an intellectually consistent or useful offering to public dialogue. The only thing gained is reinforcing the purity of free speech. To prove that anybody can be free to speak. Well…not anybody.
These high-profile protests are the logical result of increasing political participation, eroding support for institutions, and the growing sense of disenfranchisement and inequality. Teaching our children to stand up to bullies will lead more of our young adults to stand up to these bullies in their pulpits. Bullies who administrative officials, groups, and supporters who aren’t representative of the student population invite to campus. Bullies who have a history of attacking in public their friends and neighbors and put them into convenient boxes for dismissal.
The exercise of free speech is happening here, and its happening by the students more than by the guests.
Again, this is not to condone the silencing, the running them out of town, or any other specific acts at specific protests. But looking at the free speech issue only from the speaker’s side, or pigeon-holing this into Left/Right dualistic politics is intellectually dishonest and a direct refusal to figure out what actually is going on. Or trying to solve the problem.
Silencing celebrities has less to do with an assault on free speech and more to do with our nationwide assault on institutions. And our ritualistic infantilizing our students, not with safe spaces, but the opposite. The mandated false dichotomy of polarizing politics and the expectation of compliance.
We publicly support Martin Luther King, Jr. and shower affection for his “I have a dream” speech while telling his story through the perspective of Lyndon Johnson and the Voting Rights Act.
We ignore the Poor People’s March and the demand for economic equality. And ignore the death threats and George Wallace and the preachers in their pulpits demonizing racial integration. And all who literally stood in the way of progress. We fail to mention in every instance how much slavery became Jim Crow which became lynching which became mass incarceration. And we continue to lynch young black men and women at the altar of racism and fear.
We praise Rosa Parks and demonize any of her ancestors in the movement today.
The real question is this. Why do we give destructive celebrities a free shot at the college campus from the safe space of the stage? Safe and free of rebuttal or challenge for their statements? Why are these provocateurs invited to speak when nothing in their oeuvre remotely suggests they can offer a new and keen insight to the academic community or a creative activity which will inspire the students to achieve more? And their brand of comedy is so caustic they aren’t likely to make more than the fringiest members laugh. Since the point of jokes is to be funny.
The problem is the public speech as a medium and the speaker as hired by a small group for the betterment of the university. This medium and practice can, and normally does have a profoundly positive effect on the campus community. I’ve seen all manner of dialogues start from insightful speakers or controversies erupt from them.
But we must remember that these speeches themselves are monologues, not dialogues. And in some cases, they are monologues, with the sanction of the university. Monologues by intellectually dishonest and publicly discredited individuals who have less than no support from the campus community as a whole.
Bringing students into the planning, inviting panelists rather than speakers, or booking multiple speakers to share more of the whole story would go a long way toward resolving some of these conflicts. But not all of them. Some of it is just that these are celebrity provocateurs who are intellectually dishonest. And students are responding in literally the only way afforded them.
It would seem that for many us, giving these celebrities the freedom to speak is measured on the backs of the students’ “freedom” to listen.