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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
In Need of Discrimination: Watching What You Say

[fired this off to the editor after reading Gago's piece on the D on Tues]

Both Bruce Gago in "Freedom of Hate Speech?" and Chaplain Richard R. Crocker in "Faith Under Fire" have written to the editor of the(Every-other Daily) D to comment on the debate concerning whether the College should censure Al-Nur for hosting/entertaining, on its website, anti-Semitic interpretations of the Qu'ran. I will summarize the twin positions of Messrs Gago and Chaplain to demonstrate the misguidedness of their views.

For Gago, controversy creates a space where "logic, reason, and open debate" adjudicates among competing claims. For the College to do so, through juridical means, would unnecessarily abridge and burden the climate of free speech, which Bruce implies in his rhetorical question is the "fundamental raison d'etre" of the university. The idea that the College should censor any speech at all, as provocatively implied in that firebrand closing of his with its deliberate employment of the word "hate",--"sanctions against any organization or student that expresses speech, be it hateful or controversial, would undermine the most elemental tenets of human expression and university education"--is a heretical doctrine and should never be consider by educated folk. (Educated folk are, of course, those lovely souls of wit and learning who utilize the holy trinity of "logic, reason, and open debate.")

The Chaplain is as devoted to the unquestioned place of "free speech" as Gago but pads his view by adding in the oft-neglected dimension of tone, encapsulated in the word "civility”, which Bruce overlooks. (Bruce apparently believes that screaming matches, with a little reason et al., will produce learning and knowledge. I beg to differ.) Chaplain Crocker offers that while "freedom of expression is essential in an academic community", participants and interlocutors should "always try to cultivate and maintain an attitude of respect toward those who may disagree." Moreover, religious groups have a special burden in the verbal competition of ideas for they should “take leadership in protesting...when such expressions cease to be objects of inquiry and are instead used to threaten individuals or groups. Being a responsible member of a pluralistic educational community requires that while our beliefs differ, we express those beliefs in a way that honors the dignity of those who disagree with them."

Both Gago and Crocker believe that free speech is a good, administrative bodies should be neutral to the content of the speech, and Chaplain Crocker adds, participants must keep the medium of delivery nice. I take issue with the idea that entities like the College must be neutral to the content of speech simply because it is speech and is thus declared, by fiat, "free". Why should we conflate "hate" speech with a discourse of learning? Bruce offers that the most fundamental tenet of a university education is the freedom to express. I suggest, in contra, that the *actual* fundament of a liberal education is the cultivation of discrimination-- that is, the increasing ability to discern between the good and the bad and preparation for the ability to choose conceptions of the good life that does not unnecessarily burden others by its existence.

The College does not simply import hundreds of incoming first years to the sanctuary of Hanover to simply allow them speak. The College requires classes, and encourages each individual to shape her mind through the distributive requirements system. It is particularly in the social sciences and the humanities that we learn how to identify what is good and what is bad. (Unfortunately, the sciences and engineering departments often have curricula that are devoid of normative content. This is, of course, unsurprising given how much of their funding comes from places like the Department of Defense and other assorted institutions of war making. In fact, most of the products of the science and engineering departments scoff at the idea that they should think critically about what scientific research means-- but I digress.) Through these classes, we explore the conceptual frameworks that will govern our outlook as persons and citizens, and leave a huge imprint on our scholarly undergraduate work. Antiracism, antidiscrimination, elitism, vegetarianism, a concern for injustice, and feminism are just a few of the values I have appropriated from my classes. None of these values suggests "content-neutral" thinking; in fact, my values specifically dictate that when one hears an offensive or incorrect proposition that has found a new interlocutor with which to have a Socratic dialogue.

This brings me to a practical application of what I have learned. The College can, and should, ban speech that injures the quality of life and the total community environment of learning. Since we as individuals are, as political theorist Benhabib notes, situated among many webs of interlocution and various communities of language and socializing, we as individuals, and the College as an institutional authority, have the responsibility to censor and punish speech-acts. The Supreme Court best defined those acts as those "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." That responsibility is not simply the Chaplain's injunction to be nice, but also forces us to ensure *what* we say is not injurious before we determine *how* we are going to say it.

My conception of what speech means in the context of a liberal education would be allow a controversy that causes learning, and allow us to condemn the speech of a fraternity and possibly censor Al-Nur. It would force members of various communities of discourse to consider more carefully the content and application of their ideas. This is not to lead to political correctness, for I lambaste such things often, but means to serve as a major corrective to those who doubt the importance of group identity and self-respect.

Any person should have been offended and have wanted to act against what was found on Al-Nur's website. I do not know what the College will do to Al-Nur, if anything, but it is important that we defend the right of the College to do so. I close with an observation of Justice Frankfurter: a person's "job and [her] educational opportunities and the dignity afforded him may depend as much on the reputation of the racial and religious group to which [she] willy-nilly belongs, as on his own merits."