Free speech requires responsibility

November 3, 2017

If we talk about free speech only in abstract terms, we will never make any progress and will remain divided as a community.

I attended the last half hour of the free speech forum on Monday. The principles of free speech that the Task Force on Free Expression has devised were very reasonable and the time members spent on them is valuable. I appreciate the emphasis on personal responsibility, respect, the differentiation between invitees and university honorees and the denouncing of physical violence.

Brandeis could do better to encourage introspection. I wish we could be more critical of motivations. Are you inviting this speaker because you want to annoy people and feel good about yourself, or are you inviting a speaker because you feel a part of the debate is lost on campus? What sort of physical violence do they really encourage among Brandeis students (probably none at all)? Are we protesting a speaker because we think their speech is harmful, or because it challenges our ideological power position? Why does their speech resonate with so many students if it is truly harmful? Are my limits where they are because my personality would be less interesting without them and does it help me feel special at the expense of any common ground and social progress, or do I really, really feel this way?

Students who shared opinions at the forum on Free Expression brought up Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative speaker and polemicist. D’Souza is known for his criticism of the Democratic Party from the angle that they, about 150 years ago, were the party of slavery, and that fascism is a specifically leftist phenomenon.

D’Souza is exaggerating reality for attention. American political parties have come and gone and changed their positions over time, and to say Democrats are still inherently racist in the same way as they were during the Civil War is a real stretch. Democrats may be exploiting their constituencies, and that is problematic, but it is not equivalent to slavery.

Progressivism is its own animal. To say that fascism is purely leftist ignores the many religious forms it took in Spain and Eastern Europe, and even the country that invented it. Mussolini appealed to the Pope for a time. This is not to say religion is purely of the right, though it is viewed that way in today’s political debate in academia especially and in this odd culture concerning free speech. I believe this complicates D’Souza’s narrative.

Here is my issue: D’Souza is intellectually worthless and contributes almost nothing to real political debate.

So why do so many students have a problem with him? If he is totally worthless, why are those who oppose his views so worried about his rhetoric swaying people? Do they feel that their own arguments are not strong enough, or are they competing only for headspace and aware of how easily people change their minds?

This speaks to the essential problem with these free speech debates. It has nothing to do with ideas, it has nothing to do with rules, or concern for narratives or identity. It is all about power, even from those who seek to deconstruct every hierarchy they come across as if hierarchies are inherently bad. Both sides have hyperbolic views of the free speech debate: Left-leaning believers are certain of their historical progress and the right-leaning believers see the debate as the end of the republic as we know it. Unfortunately, they are correct in the debate’s role on campus, though I am inclined to say the side backed by postmodernist subjectivity is much more dangerous.

Neither side wants anything to change. If we set aside ‘debate’ over values that no side will budge on, we will have to bond with our peers rather than feeling a constant state of oppression. We will see that slight offenses come from habit or no bad place, or have no need to be fought at all, or see our own capacities to be selfish jerks by purposefully rubbing people the wrong way. We might see that our barriers are self-imposed only so we have something to yell about, habits rather than moral values. The battle will end, and many people would find very little to do with themselves and realize that they are not all that important in the grand scheme of things. In a grand application of Dostoyevsky, the world will become mighty boring.

We lack a grand narrative for the nation partially because of the forces I mentioned in my opinion last week, but also because many people do not want one. That would make life too good in a nation that is among the most prosperous in history, one that commoditizes its real struggles so that they cannot be solved and instead serve narcissists who need something to be angry about rather than solving them.

The debate is missing a real element of critical thinking about ‘limits’ and ‘lines.’ We do not question where views come from or their subjectivity. Any encouragement of objectivity regardless of politics or ‘power structures’ is not present. In an attempt to not anger university stakeholders, conservative and liberal, we only see the subtext manifest itself among the students who came to share opinions.

To deny that objective truth exists is to deny all hope of change. We lack the capacity to see truth without training and years of introspection and experience, but that does not mean we should not try. For everyone, please consider for a few minutes that you might be wrong, and that you might have to change your behavior or mindset. That process is not easy or painless.

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