Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Too much free speech or not enough silence? 

Jim Paine notices that the first actions of Jay Bennish, the teacher who involuntarily took a week off from classes after a 20-minute political conniption in a geography class, was to suggest that the student was wrong for taping the lecture.
If Bennish were courageously Speaking Truth To Power, why then was he so eager to condemn the agent of that Truth's broad dissemination? And parenthetically, is anyone besides me just a tad tired of the phrase "speaking truth to power"? The phrase implies brave speech in the face of terrible retribution, but what retribution has Bennish faced? He's back teaching classes, albeit with the apparent promise to present both sides of whatever argument he's discussing (what a huge concession; I had always assumed�wrongly, it turns out�that that was the responsibility of every educator).
Speaking truth to power, besides being an overused phrase, is also absolutely not what we do. When we hear words we do not like, in many places, we react with power and force, be it censorship, taking the offending person to sensitivity training, etc. ACTA Online tells of a great student editorial at Oregon State, on the occasion of the David Irving's imprisonment in Austria as a Holocaust denier. Elizabeth Meyer writes:

This doesn't mean that hate speech must go unnoticed by universities. The universities can respond by holding forums, condemning such speech (but still allowing it) and providing support to student groups attempting to educate the
campus about such issues. An atmosphere where the university just ignores it can easily be closed to minorities and women. But by simply banning it, the university pushes the problem under the rug only to have it rear its ugly head later, once the bigots are finished with school.

Supreme Court Justice Brandeis argues, "the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones." Our society has decided that for a functioning democracy, we must be able to evaluate ideas on our own. Yet if a university shields its students from offensive speech, the targeted students will never learn to defend themselves and the offensive students will not have their views directly challenged.

ACTA notes that while the battle against speech codes is painted as a conservative cause, this is very misleading. For the very same reasons that conservative students look to be more prepared to debate than liberals -- because they are challenged to speak -- so too should we educate those to speak against hate speech. Silence when something needs to be said is a great incentive to learn how to speak to power.

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