I was dismayed – though not terribly surprised – to find my alma mater making headlines over reaction to an unpopular article in the Argus, and still more troubled by the rather tepid response of the editorial staff to what is a clear call to undermine their authorial freedom and the integrity of their paper.
Particularly frightening to me are the phrases used by those calling for a boycott. The Argus has been variously charged with neglecting “to provide a safe space,” marginalizing student voices and legitimizing hatred; the columnist, by his own account, has been subjected to a campaign of online and in-person harassment – and by people who have the audacity to claim they speak on behalf of “community” and “tolerance”! I wonder by what sophistry can publishing a student opinion be said to render a space “unsafe,” or constitute a “silent agreement” that students of color “do not deserve a voice” or are unworthy of respect? Irony has never been easily grasped by authoritarians, but it is nonetheless worth noting that it is the boycotters whose implicit message is that the controversial columnist is unworthy of a voice or community respect.
Inclusivity is a noble goal, but even noble ends can be meanly pursued, and it should be understood that any attempt to censor one Wesleyan student or abridge their right to freedom of expression undermines the right of the student body at large to hear a different opinion. This isn’t a path to comity or knowledge; it leads unfailingly to stultifying conformity, and absurd situations where you may believe something to be true, and your roommate and neighbors all believe the same, but none of you know that you share the opinion in common.
A free press was established to prevent opinion from hardening into dogma, and so the editorial staff, in particular, should be wary of threats to their liberty. But I wonder to what extent their proposed policy changes, which include “holding off on publishing a particular op-ed ” until it can be contextualized with counterbalancing articles, undermine this goal. Will all opinion pieces receive similar scrutiny, or are such measures reserved for the unpopular, against-the-grain articles? Fact-checking is undoubtedly an important aspect of journalism, but with your admittedly meagre time and means, how can we be sure every opinion piece will receive the same rigorous treatment?
President Roth, to his immense credit, has decisively upheld the liberal virtue of free expression, but I would like to see him lend force to his words with decisive action. A 2010 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found a mere 35% of college students – and an abysmal 19% of professors – strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” The non-partisan Foundation For Individual Rights In Education grades colleges according to how egregiously their speech codes violate student First Amendment rights; Wesleyan currently has their lowest possible grade. Any institution committed to the pursuit of truth and knowledge should blush at these findings, and any student caught destroying or throwing away copies of the Argus should be punished, not treated as a righteous crusader for justice – book burning, I remind you, is not only evil when the books you like and approve of are set aflame.
Lastly, I would like to make an appeal to the community at large. You have heard from self-styled liberals and progressives for what is, at bottom, a plea for censorship, or, at the very least, a call to have opinions filtered and mediated – the opinion-holders “trained” and sensitized – before they can be allowed to reach you. But there is nothing liberal about abridging freedom of expression. On the contrary, the First Amendment was the rock on which the great civil rights battles of the past century were fought and won, and there is no reason to suppose any future fights will be any different.
Who are these 167 signatories of the boycott who would make a virtue of conformity? They are well-intentioned, to be sure, but there is simply no way to be in favor of diversity and democracy and against free expression; these people are, in the words of the great gay rights activist Jonathan Rauch, “epistemological pacifists, enjoying the products of critical inquiry while righteously condemning any unpleasantness which they see in the products’ manufacture.” On a truly diverse and open campus, people will disagree and feelings will be hurt; this is unavoidable. It is also the best way yet devised to mediate between different values and opinions, and, hopefully, arrive at the truth, or some approximation of it. There are places in the world that have been vacuum-sealed against dissent, that bear an eerie resemblance to the “safe space” ideal – North Korea springs instantly to mind – but you wouldn’t want to live in any of them.
I was once an English major at Wesleyan, and can recite the social justice catechism as well as anyone, but I’ll ask you, instead, to consider a basic principle. Take the following quotation, from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Good manners are an admission that everybody is so tender that they have to be handled with gloves. Now, human respect — you don’t call a man a coward or a liar lightly, but if you spend your life sparing people’s feelings and feeding their vanity, you get so you can’t distinguish what should be respected in them.” In place of good manners and sensitivity, prefer respect; there is no respectful way to silence someone’s opinion or revoke their platform, but there are many respectful ways to disagree.
Clark is a member of the Class of 2011.