Richard Prystowsky is a former professor of English and Humanities and current Vice President of Academic Affairs & Student Services at Marion Technical College. He has been actively involved in promoting diversity awareness and empowerment in and beyond the Academy for over three decades.
In the face of students’ shouting down speakers whose views offend them, discussions of the issues at stake often focus on, for example, whether or not such an action is itself a form of free speech, or whether or not such disruptions should be punished.
Underlying many of these discussions is the question of whether it is good to expose students to hearing offensive and perhaps hateful views or whether we should protect them from hearing such views.
These and other areas of focus are important and need continued attention. However, I’d like to take the discussion in a different direction, one that centers on the intellectual (and activist-related) self-harm to students that might ensue when we tacitly or explicitly endorse or encourage that they abandon the use of civil discourse when they are confronted by speech that they find offensive, hateful, or perhaps even threatening.
More specifically, I want to frame this problem within the context of a question that I posed in my previous blog post, to wit: “What lessons are we teaching students if we allow them to shout down speakers or otherwise prevent speakers from being heard?”
Let me begin by recounting the following frightening episode: a scholar was confronted by angry protestors condemning her views. She was burned in effigy. At the airport, on her way home, she was, as she herself describes, “‘accosted by a group of about 20 people, holdings signs with a blown-up picture of [her] (doctored) with banners telling [her] to go home or go to hell.’”
Although she was not even scheduled to speak at the conference that she would be attending, it seems evident that the protestors would do all that they could to keep her from doing so, should she decide to try.
You would be understandably mistaken if you thought that this incident involved a conservative or far-right activist. Indeed, speakers expressing conservative or far-right views sometimes have been met by angry, occasionally violent protests by persons who feel genuinely, deeply offended or threatened by these views.
However, the scholar whose story I’m recounting is Judith Butler, a well-respected academic on the left. The incident referenced above occurred last fall, in Brazil, and was reported on by Inside Higher Ed, Buzzfeed and other outlets.
Apparently, the protesters found Professor Butler’s views (on gender fluidity, for example) highly threatening to their concept of family and to their way of life. They were angry that she was in their midst, they didn’t want to hear from her, and they wanted her gone.
Here are my questions for persons who might find it appropriate for students to shout down, say, Charles Murray or Faith Goldy and endorse the views held by Professor Butler:
Given the Brazilian protestors’ genuine sense of offense, threat or even harm resulting from Professor Butler being allowed to speak — do you support or condone their actions? If not, why not? Surely, none of us would want to claim moral, and perhaps ethnic, superiority over the Brazilian protesters, would we?
My twofold proposition, then:
First, when by acts of omission or commission we intentionally or unintentionally teach students that it is acceptable for them to shout down speakers whose views they do not like or that they find offensive, we are teaching them a methodology of discursive engagement according to which, in order for them to act consistently in good faith, they would have to defend the actions of others who shout down speakers voicing views that they may themselves endorse and embrace.
Second, and perhaps hitting closer to home for students, if they are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to suggest that all views have moral equivalency. Rather, I am talking about a methodology and about a means to an end.
Personally, I do not attend speeches given by individuals whose views I find hateful or offensive, and I support students’ displaying their own objections to hearing such views in ways that do not infringe upon the rights of others in the community of inquiry to hear and engage with invited speakers. I endorse colleges holding teach-ins and other such events as a way to support students and help them understand the often complex issues at stake.
However, shouting down speakers is not only rude (given that these are guests who have been invited by others in the intellectual community); it could also possibly undermine students’ own freedom of speech. Indeed, recent research published by Heterodox Academy suggests that most professors fired for political speech are actually on the left.
In addition, these maneuvers help perpetuate the very problematic, dualistic, “us” versus “them,” enemy-making conditions of social and political discourse and coercive power relations that many of us claim to want to undo and overcome.
Perhaps the most salient, cogent lesson on this entire matter is captured by a core teaching of Rabbi Hillel the Elder. When confronted by a Gentile who mockingly said that he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while the Gentile stood on one foot, Rabbi Hillel patiently but firmly responded: “That which you find hateful if done to you, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the entire Torah. Now go home and learn it.”