To Speak the Unspeakable

The irony is palpable—discussions about how to discuss are becoming heated and futile all at once. American universities are having an existential crisis on how to handle this contentious little phrase, “free speech”—a phrase that is either dragged through the mud or placed on an ivory pedestal. To be clear, I’m not referring to speech that directly incites violence towards others—such speech is rightly considered unlawful. Rather, the focus of this essay is the current environment surrounding political discussion on college campuses. Both in universities and in Congress, frustration grows as the two sides cannot bridge their differences with fruitful conversations. Ultimately, liberals and conservatives will only be able to cooperate once we readjust the aim of our political discussions to finding the truth.

Let’s take a quick college road trip across the country. West Coast: At UC Santa Cruz, several students interrupted a College Republicans meeting to call the students ‘fascists.’ Midwest: last spring, several Notre Dame graduating seniors silently stood up and walked out of Vice President Mike Pence’s graduation speech. East Coast: in the past few weeks, Georgetown’s Love Saxa student organization, which promotes traditional marriage and chastity, was almost stripped of their funding and official club status. Middlebury College rather disastrously tried to host speaker, Charles Murray. Protesters loudly chanted a prepared statement and effectively prevented Murray from speaking. Lastly, we arrive at Princeton where recently the Daily Princetonian published Ryan Born’s article that suggested conservative arguments should be silenced. Sophomore Nick Sileo then appeared on Fox News to counter the article’s argument. It is to our credit that our university contains the most civil debate of free speech in this litany of disputes.

It doesn’t help that our president fails to set an example for this—President Trump frequently succumbs to rude ad hominem attacks on Twitter that harms the sound, civil exchange of ideas. And yet, President Trump’s rhetoric is the product of forces that were in play long before. There are three evils that contribute to this growing controversy around free speech:

Worst Assumptions

Liberals and conservatives both interpret each other’s behavior in the worst possible way imaginable. This tendency is evident in Junior Ryan Born’s recent editorial, which claimed: “When conservatives appeal to ‘free speech,’ it is actually a calculated political move, designed to open up avenues of political discourse while shaming others from moving in active political opposition.” When conservatives appeal to free speech, it’s because we want to truly discuss something controversial in an open, honest way. To blanket every conservative as scheming and underhanded is not only uncharitable, but it also shuts down a constructive dialogue. Just as liberals sometimes use hyperbolic phrases that destroy the free exchange of ideas (such as “bigot,” “fascist,” “white supremacist” etc.) so too do conservatives with their criticisms of liberals as “snowflakes.” Let’s cut out these pointless, often misused barbs from our vocabulary and lay out the real arguments.

Identity Politics

On that morning in November 2016, liberals woke up to one of the most surprising electoral defeats in our nation’s history. I vividly remember seeing my liberal friends crying as they struggled to envision four years under President Trump. Admittedly, their reactions surprised me. I kept looking around at the emotional distress and thinking—but there’s so much more to life than politics. I observe this with nothing but genuine concern: it is common to see many adopt politics as their religion, as their sole identity, as this all powerful god that has a disproportionate presence in their life. It is largely this adopting of politics as an identity that makes dialogue so difficult. How can you disagree with someone’s political opinions without offending the core of who they are? Perhaps, we should reevaluate the importance of our political opinions before embarking on these controversial discussions.

Winner Takes All   

Every discussion ought to be aimed at discovering the truth. All too often, the aim of discussion is “winning” by slinging witty barbs designed to humiliate, not to enlighten. We miss a great opportunity if we choose to see liberals and conservatives as bitter adversaries. If anything, we are each other’s greatest resource—nothing sharpens your own argument like the blade of a rebuttal or dissenting opinion. In compassionate dialogue, liberals and conservatives are truly partners in pursuit of the truth. And this sort of dialogue cannot be held in a safe space that censors minority, often conservative viewpoints.

Like many liberals and conservatives, I have felt at times that it is better to be silent on controversial issues such as the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage, health care, or illegal immigration. Conversations about politics felt unnecessary and pointlessly divisive. It is easy to shrug my shoulders and change the subject. But only through compassionate dialogue can we hope to discover the objective truth, the solution to complex problems, and the best methods to right social ills. We all share the responsibility of cultivating a community receptive to minority opinions. At times like these, George Orwell’s words echo rather poignantly in the homogenous chambers we can easily find ourselves hiding in: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So let’s talk.

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