Thursday, August 25, 2005

Free speech on college campuses

Wendy McElroy has written an interesting article about free speech on college campuses. One campus has a "speech code" that is:

"...both vague and broad. Key terms such as "derogatory" and "demeaning" are undefined but whatever they cover— classroom speech is included. Thus, a student who argues an unpopular position in class e.g. 'affirmative action is racist because it discriminates against white men' or 'gay marriage is against Biblical teachings' — may be punished if another student feels offended. Objective discrimination or intent to harm does not need to be present."

Apparently some colleges view honest discussion as discriminatory, largely based on the fact that someone feels offended by the topic being discussed.

Ms. McElroy offers an explanation as to why colleges adopt these types of policies:

"One approach to an explanation is to view the phenomenon as part of a general societal trend that has pitted freedom of speech against tolerance as though they were enemies. This trend claims that expressing my dislike or criticism of the gender, race or lifestyle of others is tantamount to violating their civil rights.

The trend rests on a specific definition of "tolerance." For many, that means being broadminded. It means acknowledging the legal right of others to a dissenting opinion, religious belief or peaceful lifestyle such as homosexuality.

The foregoing definition of tolerance does not require stifling your own opinions or preferences, which have an equal legal status. It does not require you to personally accept what you tolerate. Defending people's right to be different doesn't involve taking them out to dinner and a movie.

The current campus definition of tolerance inverts the more traditional meaning and demands personal acceptance. Tolerance becomes the active celebration of "diversity" and toleration requires the suppression of the speech, views or peaceful behavior that supposedly hinder diversity by making "diverse others" uncomfortable. The others are usually members of a group that has been historically oppressed, such as women and are deemed to now deserve special legal protection."

I agree with Ms. McElroy when she compares this trend to "Newspeak":

"Thus, a bizarre scenario occurs: Advocates of tolerance call for censorship. Champions of diversity narrow the range of expressible attitudes. This is a form of Newspeak , the fictional language in George Orwell's novel "1984" that depicts a totalitarian future. Orwell explained the purpose of Newspeak: To reduce the very ability of people to express subversive ideas and attitudes ("thoughtcrimes")."

This article is a worthwhile read. I am of the opinion that politically correct speech codes hinder public discussion by taking the focus away from the topic and placing it on a person who is generally deemed intolerant, therefore not worth listening to. This has a tendency to stop the discourse which inhibits the growth of new ideas. If someone has racist opinions, they might be challenged to think about new ideas if they are presented in an open discussion. But even if that person doesn't change his views, chances are few people will be compelled to think like him. While I believe that some topics can be hurtful and offensive, it is still important that we retain the right to speak about them freely!