Everyone says they support free speech, but no one clearly defines what that means.
Whenever a group is decried for “harming” the values of “diversity” and “inclusivity” — such as the uproar over the Student Governing Association allocating $3,000 for a Turning Point USA speaking event on campus — I wonder how slippery that standard of outrage really is.
I am not defending Turning Point, or even those who have protested the Kansas State chapter’s recent allocation for an event. I am trying to get at a more fundamental issue: can we trust one another to consistently uphold a principled and justified perspective of free speech?
For many conservative students on campus, or those who are secretly conservative, we wonder how the outrage toward Turning Point will affect us. Is Turning Point itself the object of scrutiny and scorn, or is it all conservative positions?
If it is the former, and a reasonable case can be offered, then we may be able to make progress. If it is the latter, then our campus has severely undermined free speech and the fundamental purpose of the university: the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
I think it has been clearly demonstrated through recent articles and letters to the editor published by the Collegian that Turning Point has a thorny national history and a contentious presence on campus more recently.
Nonetheless, I am hesitant to “pick” a side.
I have quite a few friends in the organization who I admire and respect. Even if the national leadership has failed, there are good people within the local campus chapter.
I wonder if many of the protesters really know what TPUSA on campus is like, or if they only see it as an imposing, national mass of young ideologues (perhaps that’s exactly what they see?).
Every time I went to one of their meetings, I never felt attacked or demeaned. I also need to reach out and hear their thoughts on the matter — perhaps they have insights I’ve missed.
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I am sympathetic to their cause of increasing conservative representation and addressing abuse from the left. It is a virtually undisputed fact that the left has enjoyed mainstream and academic prominence — some are questioning whether it is deserved.
There are countless stories of conservative (or simply right-leaning) students being physically assaulted, having property vandalized and reputations eviscerated. For example, I tabled not too long ago for my organization at the Student Union. My table was celebrating the Constitution and advertising a student-led discussion on the meaning of freedom.
One of my friends told me someone thought I was supporting a racist organization, which was deeply upsetting. As an Asian-American student who went to high school in the inner city and is acutely aware of the problem of racism, I found those assumptions dehumanizing and reductive. In fact, I was once a liberal. But the person who automatically assumed I was “racist” did not care to talk to me.
We need to have these conversations and do so in a way that builds trust between communities. Conservatives can peddle their grievances against liberals, and liberals can talk about the conservative weaponization of free speech. In reality, both sides have weaponized free speech, because they have beset their causes on aggressive power and not toward trust or the humanity of the other person.
I have worked hard to study liberal beliefs, often read them in my classes and have come to admire many liberal thinkers. When I was a liberal, I studied the best conservative thinkers and was eventually convinced by their arguments. Regardless, I have worked hard to listen to differing opinions and criticize my own side when necessary.
Even though I disagree with philosopher John Stuart Mill on many issues, I found myself deeply admiring what many consider the greatest defense and model of free speech ever assembled.
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” Mill wrote. “His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. … Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them. … He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
The idea that Mill advocates is a kind of intellectual virtue, where our pursuit of the truth is honest and demonstrates scholarly character.
If we are going to invite speakers on campus, then they should be of the highest quality. We should be seeking out the best thinkers from both sides who are willing to engage in rational argument, the currency of reason, who are open to their fallibility and invested in human flourishing. Our classrooms should consider differing viewpoints from credentialed scholars who will force us to question the assumptions we take for granted.
We are not going to get anywhere on the free speech debate if we do not build a culture of trust. We are not going to build a culture of consensus, a culture of unanimity and conformity. If conservatives heard liberals say and act out, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” then there would be more trust.
We conservatives should be more willing to recognize when the speakers we want to bring to campus are just provocateurs and do not have anything substantial to add to our discourse.
Moreover, us conservatives need to invest more heavily in individual intellectual responsibility, reading and engaging liberalism’s best arguments, and seek out compassion and empathy. I know it is hard to seek out compassion when you are told you hate women, are racist and are undeserving of a fair hearing, but there are many good liberals out there who do not deserve to be lumped in with the radicals who tarnish their causes.
This is why I am suspicious when people claim they stand up for free speech, and why I am wary of those decrying Turning Point. If we are willing to engage with the same principles of free speech and tolerance, consistently apply these rules to one another and thoughtfully consider the life experiences and arguments of the other person, then my hesitation would rest.
But, my question remains: who can I trust?
Suan Sonna is a freshman in political science and philosophy. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.