Vox Clamantis: Donovan

by The Dartmouth | 11/11/14 4:40pm

To the Editor:

Respectful Speech

Dartmouth has a history with speech issues, starting with Daniel Webster and most recently with an ill-conceived attempt at political speech. One of the defining features of a liberal arts education is the ability — perhaps even the obligation — to express differing points of view. But we are witnessing a trend that must be called out for what it is: incivility. Liberal education has at its core the free expression of informed ideas, brought to the table for exploration, defense and rebuttal. From the ancient Greek tradition to the establishment of American higher education, credibility and social change have emanated from the desire for truth through intellectual exchange. There is only one requirement for this exchange to occur effectively: good will and respect for opposing points of view. This does not mean that we must accept positions that are contrary to our own deeply held points of view, nor does it impose constraint on passionate speech. But it does require respect.

The academy is teetering on a dangerous precipice regarding speech — in the attempt to bolster social and political change we have allowed mob rule to masquerade as political speech. It must stop. Embarrassing someone whose views you do not hold does not make you the winner, it makes you the schoolyard bully. Civil disobedience, as described by Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., is not mob rule; it is carefully considered moral action that requires the moral agent to take full responsibility for engaging in the act. King’s letter from a Birmingham City Jail eloquently explains that when a law is unjust, even when passed by legitimate authority, the moral actor is required to actively oppose such laws. But he or she is also bound to accept the social penalties for that act of civil disobedience. Hence King’s letter lives on as a talisman for us when considering how to respond to social injustice — with dignity, intelligence and bravery.

The hallmark of an educated person is the ability to take various points of view, thoroughly investigate them all and come to a well-informed position that can be hotly debated in the marketplace of ideas. Our Dartmouth tradition rests proudly on that ability, and we must curb any attempt to allow one perspective to overrule the thoughtful deliberation of the majority of students who proudly hold many differing perspectives.

Aine Donovan

Director, Ethics Institute

Dartmouth College