Stanescu-Bellu: Freedom to Listen

Listening to harmful rhetoric is the first step in combating it.

by Sofia Stanescu-Bellu | 2/8/18 12:45am

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have always been polarizing points of discussion, particularly in recent years. It is difficult now to read any publication or witness any discourse, on TV or elsewhere, without there being an undercurrent pertaining to this freedom of expression. On both sides of the aisle, invisible lines are being drawn, partitioning categories of opinions and ideas that are allegedly “fake news,” conspiracies or subjectively considered to be wrong. Some may feel that open discourse is being suffocated. Others might contend that people are not doing enough to stifle unsavory discussion. A society must define what is out-of-bounds in terms of freedom of expression and ask where it ought to draw a line in limiting dialogue.

In 1789, James Madison defined these freedoms by stipulating that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But our constitutional definition is vague. Speech can and does encompass pretty much anything, save for extreme cases deemed to involve defamation, threats or extreme obscenity. While many of the discussion topics deemed unsuitable today are protected by the First Amendment, does that make them correct or acceptable? No, and this is where the lines get blurry.

It is easy to let emotion drive responses to certain ideas and situations — many people naturally react strongly when faced with something deemed a direct affront to who they are and what they stand for. They may instinctively feel an ardent need to fight for their ideals, morals and values, which can lead to visceral and vitriolic reactions. But while some opinions can be hurtful, upsetting, rooted in factual misconceptions or posed to propagate false ideas to a large and susceptible audience, stifling them does more harm than good.

Arguably, many opinions voiced during the 2016 presidential election were harmful in the ideals they promoted and in the toxic environment they created for a large subset of the American population. But when reflecting on the years of former President Barack Obama’s tenure, such opinions were largely veiled from both mass media and the general population. There were notable tragic exceptions, but those were just that: exceptions to the rule in an environment fueled by dreams and ambitions in which many hoped that America could be a true progressive country for the people and by the people; a country where everyone felt accepted and at home; a country where societal walls were beginning to be torn down and replaced with bridges.

But while those eight years were a time of change and progress for many, the nation still had a dark underbelly of negative sentiment that only truly came to light during the 2016 election. The ascent of the Republican Party and of President Donald Trump was shocking because no one saw it coming — no one could fathom that eight years of progress could be unraveled so easily and that a new administration could spawn something so tenebrous. This is why even the most painful and hurtful opinions should be heard.

Hearing does not mean accepting — we should in no way accept poisonous ideas and allow them to become norms — but we should still listen. Ignoring ideas that run contrary to the prevailing narrative of social justice and to the current goals of progress may leave people happier in the short term, but all good things come to an end. To avoid disorienting setbacks, people should allow themselves to register all arguments and ideas. Only then will people have the ammunition to fight them and the forecast to plan ahead.

If the media had not published Trump’s and the Republican Party’s rhetoric, no matter how factually incorrect and harmful many considered it to be, would the public have known it existed? The sentiments upon which Trump capitalized were certainly not as apparent during the Obama administration as they are today, and the substantial support these ideas received had therefore been vastly underestimated. If The Dartmouth had not published “You’re Not Tripping,” would members of the Dartmouth community have been as aware of the sexism and anti-minority sentiments evidently still prevalent at the College? Some people may have suspected it, but others would have remained blissfully in the dark. Ryan Spector ’19’s arguments had little factual basis and were rooted in bitterness. But his reaction to rejection, widely circulated on campus, and resentfulness toward a group of more qualified women brought the issues minorities face at Dartmouth to the forefront of discussion.

Now, this issue cannot be ignored by the student body and the administration, and action of some form has to be taken. If we allow sentiments like those espoused by Spector fester in the dark, they will continue to grow and spread to infect others. If brought out into the open and exposed for what it is, this kind of rhetoric will wither in the face of love, hope and unity.