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On Conversation: How Free Speech is the Tool for Sit-Down Diplomacy

On Conversation: How Free Speech is the Tool for Sit-Down Diplomacy

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On December 15, 1791, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. It says in general that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” While at first appearing vague, the founding fathers were actually very specific when it came to laying out the terms to free speech. “There are only really three situations in which the government can restrict speech and still remain constitutional:

  1. Speech that has low 1st Amendment Value:

    Defamation: false statements that damage a person’s reputations can lead to civil liability, especially when the speaker deliberately lied or said things they knew were likely false.

    True threats: Threats to commit a crime can be punished.

    “Fighting words”: Face-to-face personal insults that are likely to lead to an immediate fight are punishable.

  2. The government can restrict speech under a less demanding standard when the speaker is in a special relationship to the government.

  3. The government can also restrict speech under a less demanding standard when it does so without regard to the content or message of the speech.

I think the most important point laid out here rests in point 1; that while one shouldn’t incite violence or knowingly defame someone else’s point of view, one is free to say or express what they want, regardless of conflicting opinions. Even over time, these principles have largely stood without wavering. If anything, constitutional rights to free speech have been strengthened over the past several decades.

The problem that we run into today is usually a brick wall when there is political or social debate. Issues such as gender identity, transgender public restroom rights, abortion, Islam in the western world and how it fits in, and racism are just a few examples that seem to be the subject of debate continuously. It would be wrong to think that we shouldn’t be debating these issues. If they mean anything to anyone, then of course we should have intelligent discussions about them. However, recently on college and university campuses, the inability to  have a measured conversation has run amok across the United States.

The ability to have a rational, reasonable conversation with someone about an important topic is a rarity in 2018, especially among young people. Conversation is how society has grown together. The invention of language is by far the most important tool we have ever constructed as a species. With it, we have have been able to build cities, crops, economies, countries, transportation, and many other things that I could not possibly list. Without it, we would be stuck in an age of hunter-gathering, high mortality rates, and a general low level of human well being. One might be able to argue that we have improved the lives of other species around the globe, albeit killing them off at the same time for our own benefits; at least we have come to understand them more in some way. But we can never move away from the importance of conversation, especially now that we are so globalized as a species. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, once laid out on his podcast the importance of conversation:

It's all we have. To converge on optimal ideas, we can either employ diplomacy or force… Having said that, the landscape seems so bleak for open-minded honest conversations that I think we're best served by waiting for an intellectual revolution… and focus on the education of young people. (Sam Harris, Waking Up)

I too feel the same way. Because of the landscape that we live in, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate it without meeting some form of opposition.

In early March of 2017, Charles Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury College to talk about his upcoming book. Murray is most controversially known as one of the co-authors of the book The Bell Curve. In it, Murray and his co-author Richard Herrnstein detail the average differences across the spectrum of intelligence and IQ between the different races. Published in 1994, this book was met with wide criticism across the scientific and academic communities. The issue here is that Murray was rarely given the opportunity to be debated or have a conversation about the claims in his book. Critics claimed that their study was nothing more than thinly veiled racism and an attempt to promote the agenda of white supremacy. To make matters worse, co-author Herrnstein died the same month their book was published, and being the main promoter of IQ leading to a higher quality of life, could not defend their claims. At Middlebury College, Murray was not met with enthusiasm by typically left-leaning students. Protests erupted across the lecture hall where Murray attempted to speak. Signs being held read “No Eugenics”, shouting heard as “White Supremacy is the Enemy”. It goes on and on. When a professor at the college, Allison Stanger organized the talk itself in order to have an intelligent debate, she nor Murray were allowed to speak. When protesting became uncontrollable, Murray and Stanger attempted to leave, they were met by more protesters and Stanger herself was assaulted.

This has become the common symptom of the left. While they aren’t the sole perpetrators of this behavior, they most certainly perpetuate the idea that social taboos are at least heinous enough to be drowned out with blatant ignorance and react with possible violent outbursts. There is an inability to critically think about complicated social and political issues by millennials especially, the root of which is their unwillingness to actually hear the other side of the argument. In the instance of The Bell Curve, most critics of that book failed to read its content; and when they did, they extracted from context the ideas that suited their narrative. More recently at Evergreen State College, protests have followed outrage deeply rooted in the misunderstanding of a professor’s point of view. In following an annual tradition, Evergreen has observed a “Day of Absence” since the 1970’s. A tradition in which black faculty and students voluntarily recuse themselves from campus activity to illustrate the importance of the black community within society and how their contributions allow it function without impedance. Last year, organizers of the day reversed course. They instead insisted that white faculty and students not show up on that day and that if they did, they were enemies of the black community on campus. This is a troubling, regressive way of thinking. It is one thing to give faculty and students the option to not show up for tradition's sake, but to request that an entire group of people not show up for risk of unhinging their alliance with another group of people is an entirely different beast of its own. For white students and staff to not make an appearance on the day of absence, in an effort to show their support for their fellow black community members, they are in fact subverting the true meaning of the tradition.

I am not alone in this way of thinking. In fact, the reason this was brought to my attention was the way in which the event was made public. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen, voiced his concerns in a staff wide email that circulated very quickly. Weinstein voiced similar concern to what I spoke of previously, but unlike myself he found himself in hot water the day following the email. During what was to be a normal day of lectures, Weinstein’s workshop was interrupted by loud and aggressive voices coming from the outside hallway. When he left to find the source of the commotion, he found a large group of protesters voicing their request for him to be removed from campus. In a video detailing the protests outside his office, Weinstein was met with a similar attitude that was present at Middlebury College. Protesters did not want want to hear another opinion other than their own. The irony of the situation is that the professor and the protesters were likely fighting for the same cause; but in a sort of mob mentality they reacted forcefully to the idea that white supremacy is a systemic problem throughout our public institutions, especially our universities.

This mob behavior may have its roots in what is known as Postmodernism. An idea that is defined by an attitude of rigorous skepticism, the rejection of reason, truth, and objective reality. An idea that has sunk its teeth deeply into the humanities and arts since the mid- to late-20th century. This way of thinking reveals itself in subtle ways into the public sphere at first. An idea that isn’t new and has been around for quite some time is the idea of political correctness. At first it started as a way to structure our use of language using euphemism, and has now shifted away from its original intent to obfuscate our way of thinking entirely. It forces us to censor our own thoughts and words to not offend or oppress anyone whom has less privilege than ourselves. It is a game where the rules are always changing in order to include as many groups of people as possible; the only problem is that every group loses, and when you do, you give up your individuality. Universities like the Univ. of New Hampshire lay out the guidelines to navigate these oppression Olympics. While eventually rejected by the university, they detail microaggressions that may offend a passersby, they even have a glossary of language that lists preferred names like people of advanced age, person of material wealth, person of size; instead of things like senior citizens, rich people, or obese. As I mentioned, these ideas are not new. It may appear to be a language of inclusiveness, but underneath hides something much more sinister. When creating a new label for someone, you continue to categorize and further label them as the other. The ability to control language is an old trick out of tyranny’s hat. While the left claim that the Alt-Right have upended their civil rights and brought to light modern fascism, they in turn are coercing their own flavor of it.

The old assumption is that our institutions are safe, and that they speak to their own importance by how they affect society. This is a fallacy. Yes it appears that our very democracy is under attack by the Trump administration but our universities are in trouble as well. Most of the reactionary style of behavior that is perpetuated by students is also enforced and condoned by the teachers; again stemming from postmodernist ways of thinking. In hindsight we may wise up and understand what is happening on college campuses, but currently authorities on the left have been blind to this movement. In his latest book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, historian Timothy Snyder writes: “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions - even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” That idea truly speaks to what we are missing as silent observers. The students and staff of the colleges involved have told us what kind of behavior they want society to adopt, but we don’t seem to hear their message. At the same time, they don’t seem to understand what they are asking for either.

There is a misunderstanding of the difference between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. Publicly they so loudly scream for equality of opportunity, but in their own circles are truly pushing for equality of outcome; albeit leaning heavily in favor of the oppressed. Equality of outcome describes the opportunities for everyone should have balanced outcomes. Affirmative Action is an example of equality of outcome. It is meant to break down barriers, both visible and invisible, to level the playing field, and to make sure everyone is given an equal break. They are not meant to guarantee equal results…. Equality of opportunity is different. In fact, no one is truly created equal, despite that sort of language perpetuated throughout the American psyche. There are tall and short people, people with different economic backgrounds and classes, there are clever and daft people. If we had true equality like many Scandinavian countries, the differences between groups of people would be more obvious and perhaps celebrated. Without the pressure to desire the same benefits as someone with completely different skill sets than you, there is no competition to feel comfortable in society. The more uncomfortable people feel, it allows those who can truly make a difference in the world to rise up and shine, and for those who don’t, we can place more focus on improving their lives.

I think that it has become obvious that the ability to articulate thought is an important trait, but it is an even more precious quality to break out of your comfort zone and confront difficult ideas. However, if we restrict our thinking by controlling the type of speech we are allowed to use, or are shunned for offending someone’s feelings, then we are bringing shame to what it means to be human. The most direct translation of Homo sapiens is “Wise Man.” I like to think of it as the “Man that Thinks to Know,” I use man here as it was originally used to describe the entirety of humanity. There is some beauty in acknowledging our intelligence; in how far we’ve come. We have accomplished a great many things even while facing adversity; but those accomplishments do not last when we simply stop talking to each other, and instead start to talk over one another. In a sense, we put up barriers like we practice religion. When our most sacred ideas are challenged, our emotional instincts force us to behave in a way that stops conversations in their tracks. We hold all of our cards on faith that what we are doing is justified and truly right, without facing the other side, turning our cheek towards ideas we don’t like.

It goes to show that without the freedom to express our ideas then we can certainly never explore the possibility of being wrong or experiencing personal growth in general. However, no one can force you to accept ideas, let alone convince someone that their ideas are right or wrong. This is why we should form deep, personal connections with people whom we disagree. As adults and educators of youth, we should instill the ideas of critical thinking and rationality. Don’t teach them what to think, but how to think. More importantly, how to think about a differing opinion, and what it means to you personally. If we can’t contemplate conflicting ideas internally, then our reflections of others and ourselves may be wasted. With those tools, then one should be able to have a rational, civil conversation with someone; and they might actually learn something.

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