There was a point at which I realized what had happened. It was sometime after being asked leading questions to fit a neat narrative on conservative talk radio, essentially painting me as an unprincipled bridge. It was sometime before the end of Eugene Volken’s lecture about Free Speech on Campus. There was a point at which I realized the dilemma I could only see reflected in the enigma of a right wing campaign for more civil rights. At that point I asked myself: does free speech have to be the cost for social justice?
During a conference organized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which was extremely thought provoking, I couldn’t help but feel alienated. I was uncomfortable at more points than one (which is not, in itself a bad thing) due to the gut-wrenching arguments being made. It became clear that most FIRE attendees, and all lecturers, were disregarding the experiences of marginalized students on college campuses. Not only were the presentations insensitive to what minorities go through, they failed to acknowledge them in any significant way whatsoever. For this reason, it became quite obvious during Eugene’s lecture and after the Q and A session that all non-white attendees were increasingly uneasy, including me. Several asked questions specifically to bring up those experiences into the conversation. Despite FIRE being a non-partisan organization, my liberal self felt as if I had entered the lion’s den. The disappointingly obvious general consensus of the room was that social justice and all who advocate for it are an irrational joke. As a female, Muslim, Arab refugee, this was nothing short of heartbreaking.
The conversation on free speech takes a familiar track almost every time it is brought up. As prescribed in the constitution of the United States of America, speech, and the variety of forms it can take – such as nonverbal expression, symbolic action, and financial endorsement – are protected so long as its practice does not incite violence, defame individuals through libel or slander, or promote illegal activities.
“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech”
The lecture included at some point John Stuart Mill’s notion of a “marketplace of ideas.” Summarized, the marketplace of ideas is based on the belief that the best test of truth is how an idea fares in comparison to others in a market where many compete. Mill argues that
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers. That is not the way to bring them into real contact with his own mind.”
Several points follow from a belief in this theory. First, that offense (that fatigued word all too common in modern sociopolitical conversations) is subjective. To demonstrate his point, Volken narrated the supreme court decision of Cohen v. California (1971) which reaffirmed the right of a young man to wear a jacket that had “Fuck the Draft” written on its back. One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric, it was said. Further, along the same lines, the term “microaggressions” was brought up as well. Microaggressions are everyday manifestations of discrimination and bigotry, and take the form of anything from a denigrating comment to denying facets of the experience of an individual belonging to a certain racial or ethnic group. There seemed to be consensus that while microaggressions have a sensible core argument, they carry the potential for a dangerous slippery slope and should thus be disregarded.
Second, the marketplace of ideas theory supports the notion that we ought not to restrict offensive speech because doing so would open the door for those in power to decide what’s offensive and what’s not. Thus, before we know it, we would have an oppressive majority imposing their consensus of what’s offensive on the population. What I found fascinating about this point was that it was never considered that a marketplace of ideas is strikingly similar to this oppressive majority scenario. Both measure the truth by its appeal to the masses.
Third, it was reiterated multiple times that despite the “unsavory” nature of so many racists’ speech, the only legally punishable unethical speech is knowingly wrong statements about specific individuals. In other words, the law can only prosecute libel and speech that contain a true threat of violence.
Therefore, the question was posed: when does speech become an unprotected “true threat” of violence?
As if to say “not in these cases,” the lecturer jumped straight into a plethora of cases in a number of law schools in which an upsetting or triggering legal case record was decried by a liberal student body, and subsequently taken to court. The story is usually the same; the liberal student body finds a case offensive, complains to the administration, eventually sues the university, and wins.
What raised red flags for me, as I was scribbling as much as I can of what he was saying, was the implication that cases such as those are not only commonplace, but part of some “liberal agenda” being enforced on college students all over the country, endangering the effective education of future lawyers. FIRE as an organization is making a valiant effort to maintain the integrity of the most important right we have as citizens of a modern democracy, our free speech, and no sensible person can argue against the assertion that such sensitive cases are often tantamount to a legal education. However, to conclude that today’s college administrations enforce unnecessary censorship on their students as a result of an irrational fear of lawsuits is alarmist to an unacceptable degree. While it is true that some cases have proved that unnecessary censorship on part of a university can be problematic, institutions of higher education remain spaces where students interact with one another on various intellectual levels and present and debate the merits of their viewpoints.
At this point, I started wondering: what would Volken have us do? Surely, he must agree that bigotry is a problem that we need to deal with. The middle ground that the lecturer offered was based on his belief that free speech should allow citizens to be free from government (and therefore, public university) censorship. That a college administration should not obstruct your expression of your viewpoint, no matter how repulsive, but that other students are free to “shame” the ideas they deem offensive. Furthermore, that as a student, if you are faced with discriminatory or offensive speech, you ought to criticize it and offer a counter point, without drowning out the person. If you read an offensive book, you should write a “counter book,” not steal or burn the offensive book. No matter what your response is when presented with such ideas, you must not obstruct the person’s views from being presented. Without him having to mention it, I knew what Volken was referring to. The Berkeley riots in August of 2017, when UC Berkeley students protested the scheduled speech of Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent alt-right commentator. In his view, the students were violating the free speech rights of others when they physically obstructed the speech from taking place.
In revisiting my own dilemma of advocating for social justice without sacrificing free speech I realize a key point I hadn’t considered. What Volken, most of the attendees, and the entire weekend-long conference seemed to lack was an acknowledgement that not all subjects of speech are equal. A principled argument for an idea is different than an irrational bias towards another human being for who they are. Aspects of a fellow human being’s identity such as their race should not be up for debate. For example, someone is welcome to argue with me about how underrated blue cheese is (it isn’t) or that protectionism wasn’t the only factor to the success of Japan’s post world war two infant automobile industry. However, they are not welcome to present an idea to me that dehumanizes a person of another race or disguises false perceptions of difference in worth as an intellectual viewpoint. And even if I were to try and debate someone out of racism, I wouldn’t succeed. Advocating for minorities in the face of hatred is more effective on a personal, emotional level.
Along the same vein, while religion should absolutely be open to discussions, on and off college campuses, that doesn’t give islamophobes the right to spew hate and spread misinformation under the guise of free speech. While there are many criticisms of Muslim societies, Islam as a religion is simply not a violent or backwards religion. To use Volken’s own terms, it is a fact that has won in the marketplace of ideas. Along with the following greatest hits: slavery is wrong, indigenous populations are not savages, and women are people. Therefore, while I personally wouldn’t object to individuals voicing their own ignorance by arguing that 2 plus 2 is 5, not all forms of ignorance are as innocent.
Ever since that famed November, reconciliation has seemed impossible. Instead of a healthy dose of difference to converse about and thus propel us forward, we find the two dominant political parties in our country akin to wrestlers in a ring, itching to draw blood. However, the opportunity for us to find rebirth in the death of our confidence in our political process is there. We simply need to renew the terms under which we engage in debate, or else risk finding ourselves staggering backwards.