On free speech and sensitivity

“The moment somebody says ‘yes I believe in free speech BUT,’ I stop listening. You know: ‘I believe in free speech but people should behave themselves.'” “I believe in free speech but we shouldn’t upset anybody.” “I believe in free speech but let us not go too far.” … The point about it is: the moment you limit free speech, it is not free speech.” – Salman Rushdie reacting to January 7, 2015 terrorist attack on the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper in Paris, France.

I read with considerable sympathy and sadness the Special Campus Memo issued this week. I anticipate that my unsolicited reaction will not please many readers. Nonetheless, I do hope it will provoke thinking about the full implications — that is the conditions of possibility which enable normalizing a discussion about “the tension between freedom of expression and inclusivity and how a self-governing community can exercise appropriate sensitivity to both.”

Several years of intense pressure from various student groups to silence disagreeable voices and viewpoints should be viewed as an egregious attack on freedom of speech; it is the opposite of political enlightenment. This is most definitely not a radical politics engaged in the pursuit of justice and equality. Most of all, while muzzling voices we loath feels good and offers immediate gratification, the after-effect is a backlash that is consistently and inevitably undemocratic. The poisonous drop of a three-letter conjunction, “but”, opens the proverbial floodgate to reactionary politics.

Tomorrow has come and we have not yet seen the worst.

We have entered a twilight zone where relativism has given way to “alternative facts.” Once the sentimental vocabulary of “I feel” overpowered the cold “I think” it was easy to claim that one’s feelings would be assaulted by speakers with whom one disagrees. Gone are the days of debate grounded by disciplined reading and research. Substitute follow the mindset for follow the money and we wake up to the results of Election Day 2016. And parenthetically, it is too easy to blame spiteful white women and mean-spirited white men for the outcome while conveniently overlooking the diverse groups shoved under an imaginary Benetton umbrella called “people of color” who cast their ballot for the Republican president. These voters are neither hanging their heads in shame nor shaking them in bewilderment. And frankly, those who wake up each morning with a sense of gloom should have paid more attention to local elections that were replacing Democrats with Republicans over the past few years: this preview was a warning that a big change was coming. It is a waste of time and energy to defensively counter about the popular vote because this did not determine whose hands are now at the helm.

The stifling impact of policing speech, ubiquitously labeled “political correctness” and the active cultivation of victim mentality which infantilizes individuals has encouraged group-think and discouraged critical thinking. Critical thinking is not dropping multi-syllable words or writing sentences whose linguistic glitter is empty rhetoric. It is not taking over the role of oppressors, or seeking refuge through exclusion, or falling prey to demagogues. It is not to be found by burning books, turning off microphones and locking doors. And it is definitely not to be found in echo chambers where debate is feared and offensive words hurt more than sticks and stones. By all means, there should be safe spaces to cry, to shout and find comfort. It is precisely in these spaces that one should also learn to distinguish cuddling from coddling because the latter are tools of the privileged which weaken and paralyze. 

Safety is not creating shelters in which to hide from offensive words or ideas. We are not living in times that allow this kind of retreat or compromise. Grinnell College must be a space within which we empower minds and nurture intellectual gladiators.

– Professor K. Gibel Mevorach, Anthropology & American Studies


'On free speech and sensitivity' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.