Free speech is a complicated issue for students. Armed with hundred-point words for million-dollar problems, many students sublimate their lessons into a personal duty to denounce and attack all ideologies that enforce discrimination or prejudice. Censorship, despite its controversial reputation, has been especially championed by young erudites as an ameliorating force against hate speech. To the constitutionalists about to tear this Voice copy in half, please hold off until you have finished this article, because the students advocating censorship aren’t demanding the downfall of free speech. They say that they are merely championing humanity’s primary heuristic of interaction, Kant’s categorical imperative, the law of reciprocity or put more simply: the golden rule.
But are they? If ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ were what students demanded in regard to speech, then hate speech might be more easily defined and understood. If Middlebury students, for example, had been in observance of the golden rule when Charles Murray spoke at their campus on March 2, they would not have degraded themselves to the violent harrassment of a speaker. Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist who uses “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics,” was met with disruption and eventual pursuit at Middlebury, a treatment which alleged a response to hate speech as its cause.
Our misconceptions of hate speech may stem from the context in which we learn about hate and tolerance. Students are bombarded with high-blown and theoretical language when learning about hate speech and the need for censorship. Behind this language, however, are ideas, simple ideas derived from critical thinkers that are then obfuscated by high flowing language which is subsequently weaponized against critical thinkers on the other side, intending to outsmart them.
One effect of this fancy language, ironically enough, is the generalization of certain topics and the villainization of anyone who shares different ideas. Colleges demand that constraints be placed upon rhetoric that strays from liberal values of acceptance and, as a result, students erode any possibility of discourse. This is perpetrated so thoroughly into the liberal arts education that students will refuse to engage with any conservative critical thinker who challenges such values. It doesn’t matter how much research or statistics psychologist Murray employed in his book The Bell Curve because Middlebury students didn’t like that the book argues for a causational relationship between socioeconomic standing, race and class. Rather than engage in critical debate with a pioneer in conservative thought, students took a more dramatic approach and attempted to destroy his vehicle; some students even had alleged intentions to follow Murray to dinner after his talk. This was appalling behavior from students who reacted as if their college had invited Richard Spencer or David Duke as a guest speaker rather than a noted academic with years of experience.
Censoring hate speech presents a serious dilemma, as the definition of what is considered hate speech continues to broaden. Hate speech is defined as “speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation.” The definition includes the word “attack” which insinuates a negative and emotional response to a group. Nowadays, even if discourse is substantiated with statistical data, it still has the power to incite riots. If the discourse in any way makes a negative commentary on a group then it must be bad and therefore punished for perpetrating such awful ideas that affect our world so negatively. When any form of racism rears its ugly head, students react as if they can smite it out, but like the Hydra, racist ideology creates additional problems with each head students cut off. After years of academic polarization, students are reluctant to accept the other side. As a result, the students will treat anyone with such ideas as foul and unworthy of discussion and therefore increase the polarization between liberals and conservatives.
To absolve this, we need as a society to define more clearly what constitutes hate speech and how hate speech should be punished. First off, I would like to specify my own definition of and prejudice against all forms of hate speech that are emotionally driven. An example that us upperclassmen witnessed was Professor Pessin’s anti-Palestinian post shared on Facebook in Spring 2015. The post contained no research or proof, but it clearly reflected how Pessin felt about the situation. It was tasteless and accomplished nothing beyond Pessin’s eventual leave from the College and the instigation of division within the campus. As for Pessin’s punishment, however: I don’t believe he deserved one. To have an emotional outburst over an emotional situation is his right as a citizen. If he were rallying Jewish students to kill all the Arabs at Conn, then we would have had a different situation.
So did students at Conn overreact? Well, after witnessing what just happened at Middlebury with Charles Murray or even UC Berkeley with Milo Yiannopoulos (where students caused $100,000 worth of damages in protest to the speaker), it is hard to say. At least no fires were lit here. All I know is that the United States is becoming increasingly polarized and agitated against those who disagree. As the definition for acceptable language protected under free speech becomes increasingly constrained, discourse and progress will shrink in turn, and civilization will cease to operate efficiently. If we are the free-thinking and open-minded students we claim to be, we must listen to controversial academic speech before we reject it. As long as speech is derived from a logical rather than an emotional background, it has merit and can always be disproven through scholarly debate. However, if we continue refusing to listen, we may find ourselves in the age of Trump for longer than we had hoped as our disunity becomes our undoing.