Goldstein: Defending Free Speech

by Matthew Goldstein | 11/11/15 6:30pm

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though Voltaire never actually wrote this famous line — Beatrice Evelyn Hall did — seldom has there been a more important time in the flow of our national discourse to open a column with these words.

Enough has been said about this week’s situation at Yale University for a brief rundown to suffice. A professor sent an email challenging the administration’s advice on which Halloween costumes are appropriate for students and concluded that it’s not her “business… to control the forms of costumes of young people.” And on a campus that many say is steeped in racism, this was the breaking point.

Her comments were met with immediate pushback, with many students calling for her to be removed from her position presiding over a residential college. This controversy, however, did not result in a constructive forum for the intersection of different views. Instead, it led to the professor’s husband, also a Yale professor, being shouted down, told he is “disgusting” and asked “who the f--k hired” him, even as he explains that he has “the same objections to the [offensive] speech” the students do. Even as he adds that he “[defends] the right of people to speak their mind.”

Let us remember what prompted this attack on a professor — an email which neither encouraged racism nor offensive costumes. Instead, this email advocated for a defense of the same principle that allows these students to shout profanities at him in public. This hypocrisy is an issue — in our age of the laudable pursuit of social equality, many activists have co-opted pain and offense. They have laid sole claim to distress and, in doing so, have polarized the national dialogue to the point where anybody who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but also a bigot. Capturing the moral high ground has allowed this generation of student activists to do no wrong — to conflate their reasonable arguments with unreasonable assertions, attacks and atrocities of their own.

The students, faculty and administrators at Yale have every right to do exactly what they have been doing. That is just the point — those on all sides of this debate have the right to voice opinions, engage in critical analysis of others’ views and draw their own conclusions. Might this professor be offended at being told he should step down? Certainly. Would he be justified in trying to eliminate the student’s opportunity to tell him that? Certainly not. If he had asked the students to stop talking because they had offended him, would they? Under their logic, they should. But moral equivalence cannot exist when one party begins to reserve the sole right to be offended — or, for that matter, the sole right to any feeling or action.

The fallacy of composition is to assume that something shares all of its traits with a bigger thing of which it is a part. Everybody who advocates for the examination and deconstruction of social and racial barriers is doing important and necessary work. Everybody who condemns systematic oppression and unconscious bias should be appreciated for it. But that by no means implies the validity, importance or necessity of everything those people might do or say. In the hijacking of moral correctness by many contemporary social activists, we see this fallacy, which in turn leads to a systemic suppression of opinion and debate under the guise of noble cause. Dictatorial constraints on what can and cannot be said — and by whom — constitute a very special type of tyranny. This tyranny is made more dangerous by the fact that it goes largely unrecognized. We have instances of blatant misappropriation of moral authority, like this one, to thank for bringing it to our attention.

We must recognize that the possibility of intellectual debate is slipping away with each passing day of pandering to those who have eroded our ability to disagree. We must acknowledge the importance of a dialogue and ensuring the continued ability to take a controversial stance. Most importantly we must remember that no one group controls who can say what. Nobody has a monopoly on freedom. Nobody who asserts their right to speak their mind can take away your right to speak yours.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 18 words. Simple. For the sake of a brighter future, let’s keep it that way.