Saturday, November 15, 2014

Free Speech I

I recently became aware of a controversy that arose following a panel discussion organized by Smith College, titled "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts," which took place on September 22, 2014 in New York City. This panel was formed as a response to protests at Smith that caused Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to cancel her engagement as 2014 commencement speaker. One of the panelists, Wendy Kaminer, who is a free speech advocate, used the words "nigger" and "cunt" during the course of the discussion. These words were examined by Kaminer in the context of their use in public discourse. As Kaminer explained at the time:

I just, I think there is a very important difference between calling somebody a name and uttering the name in the context of talking about how it's used. And I think it's incredibly important to recognize that difference, because, you know, there are other words and other concepts that are going to make somebody feel threatened and somebody feel disrespected, and somebody feel psychologically unsafe. And if people can't learn to deal with those feelings they really can't function effectively in a free society.

Kaminer's position seems rather innocuous and obvious, yet her use of those words still deeply dismayed some Smith students. According to the interpretation of Jordan Houston, a student at Smith:

What unfolded...left many Smithies feeling outraged, hurt, offended, and betrayed. Assuming the role as a moderator between four Smith panelists, among them being lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer '71, President McCartney sat in on what turned from a civil discourse on the idea of "free speech" vs. "hate speech" into an explicit act of racial violence.

Houston's view is an example of the destructive power of political correctness that has taken hold on many college campuses. Fortunately, Kaminer has found many defenders. Overall it would appear that the backlash at Smith by those who labeled Kaminer a racist is seen to reflect badly on Smith College.

As noted in an earlier post, I have grown skeptical of the desirability of the college environment. The juxtaposition of unworldly, ideologically rigid professors with naive undergraduates sometimes leads to ridiculous outcomes. I get the sense that some of these students are more empowered than they ought to be for what little they know. It seems that political correctness has blinded them to the meaning and value of free speech. One would think that a college campus is the last place one would find closed-mindedness and dogma prevalent. In a way, students like Houston are behaving in a manner that confirms their status as members of an elite class that is so far above all others that it can create its own reality, even if that means misrepresenting the reality of those whom they purport to defend.

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