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The Wrong Way to Fight For Free Speech: A Response to Greg Lukianoff’s Talk

[Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author. ]

I’m a senior graduating soon. I was on the student panel at Greg Lukianoff’s talk about free speech. Here are my thoughts:

Basically, I don’t think we covered any of the important stuff. Greg focused on two things. First, he walked through six major forms of free speech infringements on college campuses. Then, he discussed how this resistance to free speech is connected to cognitive distortions. For example, the cognitive distortion of mind reading might make a student think “that person arguing with me about <political topic> actually thinks <some racist thing> but isn’t saying it”. While it might be the case that cognitive distortions (and high rates of anxiety and depression) make students unable to function happily in an environment with free speech, Greg did not make a convincing case for this. If he gave one or two detailed stories backed by a solid argument, this might have been a valuable point. He did not. Moreover, this account of the situation can be seen as dismissive. If someone claims something is hate speech and you tell them it’s not and that they are distorting what really happened in their head, unless you very clearly back that up, it won’t go over well.

In a nutshell, he didn’t talk about the fundamentals. He didn’t give the classic philosophical argument as to why free speech, including offensive (even hurtful) speech, is important and necessary. Most importantly, he didn’t address what free speech rests on: personal virtue. I believe that in order for our society to maintain its freedom of speech, we need to be strong enough to articulate our ideas in the face of fierce criticism. From my conversations with my peers, I recognize that so many people feel silenced or like their voice isn’t heard. This, it strikes me, is the heart of the problem. The solution is NOT to restrict speech, but rather help those people who feel like they aren’t heard, articulate their thoughts and be able to encounter, process and respond to people who completely disagree with them. (Analogously, if you burn your hand on the stove, getting rid of everything hot in your house is not the solution that empowers you.) If we don’t have this happen, then of course we’re going to have large groups of people wanting strong restrictions on speech.

The question I asked on in the student-panel discussion portion tried to get at this. I asked, “to what extent is a resistance to ‘free speech’ influenced by the idea that we can’t understand each others’ identities — across lines of gender or race, for example?” It seems to me that the idea that we can’t communicate our issues because of differences across gender or race — that the personal virtue I value just can’t be achieved — is both inaccurate and dangerous. This is the kind of issue that I wish Greg talked about.

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