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Bridging between Expression and Dignity

Bridging between Expression and Dignity

The last few months have seen some unnecessary, and certainly undesirable, tensions emerge between passionate advocates of greater dignity for minorities of various sorts, and partisans of free speech. The issues have roiled a number of campuses and have provided yet another set of targets for critics of higher education.

It’s time to step back, and with a bit of compromise there’s every basis for doing so.

The tensions risks separating people who are normally, and logically, on the same side, in a difficult American political climate. Defenders of minority rights in the main will only benefit from protection of freedom of expression – for many of their opponents are also no real fans of open inquiry. And there are many people pledged to academic freedom who resonate to the basic need to reassess the treatment – including the verbal treatment – of minorities.

And there’s more than idealism involved. Attacks on free speech in the name of minority dignity provide an otherwise unnecessary target for conservatives who in some cases sincerely, in other instances in delight at not having to voice outright racism, defend the principles of the academy. To the extent that the result also weakens universities in the public eye, with so many issues already to contend with, there is risk to institutions that provide the best chance for real, if not always immediate, improvements in public discourse.

So let’s bury the hatchet. Without losing their passion, minority advocates can (I believe), without great loss, pause over statements that trigger the free speech alerts, whether it’s a matter of not pressing too hard for disciplinary actions against misspeakers or maintaining open access for the media without loyalty tests. Without abandoning their principles, many free speech advocates can grant that the verbal climate for many minorities remains much more difficult that it should be – more difficult indeed that many observers until recently had realized.

For no pitched battle is necessary, if we gain a bit more mutual awareness and a dash of flexibility. Minority advocates can recognize that the process of cleaning the human environment will require sustained effort, well beyond a rhetorical campus coup or an almost surely doomed effort to anticipate every sensitivity. They already depend on free speech to criticize widely within the university context, and they will need further opportunity as they explore wider remedies. For their part, defenders of free speech can help distinguish between serious contrarian statements that require protection (however disagreeable they may seem), and symbolic gestures that are simply trashy. This distinction is crucial. Many of us have, over time, learned to alter choices of words to avoid offense, with no loss of real capacity to express ourselves: the adjustments were matters of basic courtesy, often involving nothing more than listening to key groups tell us how they wish to be addressed. Some will call the adjustments concessions to Political Correctness, but they might better be labeled simple decency.

The point is simple: real free speech need not focus on insults. It is nasty and rude, as well as hurtful, to use offensive words or graphics toward racial or religious or ethnic minorities. Responsible leaders, including university administrators, have not only the right but the

obligation to speak out against eruptions – there’s no sacred free speech principle involved in neutrality, and indeed open and frequent criticism is an appropriate use of free expression to counteract misbehavior. The results may be less dramatic in the short term than punitive “diktats”, but the durable commitment to careful and frequent counterthrust will be more effective over time.

The shared goal, I hope, can be an enduring agreement to combine defense of free expression with equally passionate determination to persuade more and more Americans to insist on more courteous discourse. Despite the obvious shortcomings, we have already made real progress in the terminology usually applied to a host of important groups in American society, and we should press forward toward fuller gains. Distracting appeals for outright censorship will weaken the effort and provoke additional defiance. Shared principle and shared persuasion offer the more constructive path.

For, again, the environment is challenging. We see around us groups and even leading political candidates who simultaneously vent racism and undermine reporters who are trying to speak the truth. It’s not hard to spot our real enemies. Let’s commit to a re-set, on campus, so that the larger threats can be addressed.