Free Speech, Diverse Viewpoints, and Complex Issues
The mid-term elections and events in recent years on various college campuses have prompted me to ponder whether free speech is being stifled in higher education. At Oberlin and many other schools, we strive to build cultures of meaningful engagement with diverse viewpoints on complex issues. Free speech is part of that broader educational goal that includes community, listening, and dissent, among other issues.
In election campaigns across the country, listening and education were secondary. The mid-terms as a whole were characterized by the sort of polarized dialogue in public discourse that has become prevalent in America. Whether on radio, TV, or the Internet rival ideologues speak to their fan bases. They dismiss others’ views out of hand and often launch ad hominem attacks on anyone opposing their views.
That so many people could have complete command of all facts and an unassailable monopoly on truth is remarkable—and impossible.
So too at Oberlin, where we typically applaud the value of free and open discussion and the clash of ideas and views, this national trend has appeared on a few occasions. Audience members who disagreed with a speaker or speakers’ views have disrupted the event with heckling, demonstrations, and in some cases, ad hominem attacks. In most instances, the event has continued after some disruption and delay and after those who created the ruckus departed.
I’m all for fierce debates, including nonviolent protest. But I believe debates should take place over ideas and views. But even as we are passionate advocates, we gain by listening to others. Sometimes we do so simply to rebut, or to strengthen our own arguments. Sometimes we do so because we may refine or even alter our own view.
That’s why free speech also includes active listening to and engagement with others. That’s important on campus and in our society. It stimulates discussion and deeper thinking about issues and ideas. Many members of our community embrace the idea of free speech. They are willing to listen to a speaker or speakers with whom they may strongly disagree. They then express their disagreement by asking direct, pointed questions in the question-and-answer period after the talk.
It’s the questioning, thinking, discussing, and debating that may go on long after a talk ends that produce learning. The task, as my friend Professor Steve Volk says, is finding ways to make the learning that happens in and beyond the event visible. That’s a challenge we need to address as a community. And I invite all members of the community to share in that process.
I do not believe in stifling dissent. That would be antithetical to my values and to Oberlin’s values. It’s okay to boycott an event. It’s okay to picket the event or distribute materials questioning a speaker’s position on issues. If, during the course of a talk, you feel compelled by the tone or content to leave, that’s your right. But others may not share your feelings. They have the right to stay and listen. And that right should be respected even as we continue to talk as a community about what shape and what way expressing and experiencing our disagreements should take.
Freedom of discourse lies at the heart of the academic enterprise. Indeed, Oberlin’s dissent policy states, “…that freedom of speech and freedom of expression be guaranteed to individuals and groups to express whatever views they wish, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The resolution calls upon all members of the college community to continue to foster a climate in which this tradition of academic and civic freedom is both cherished and asserted.”
“Within this context, Oberlin College emphatically affirms the right of all its members to protest and demonstrate. Both civil authority and college regulations reflect the obligation to balance rights of free speech and expression against such other rights as privacy and normal conduct of business. Thus, the college deems inappropriate any actions that intrude upon the rights of other members of the community, including reasonable expectations of peace and privacy and tactics or behavior that include coercion, intimidation, or harassment. Additionally, obstruction of the normal conduct of business of the college, or of members or guests of the community, is considered inappropriate.”
This policy is at work every day on our campus. In the classroom, we promote the exchange of different views. Many of us bring in guest speakers or presenters. I am particularly fond of role-playing and negotiation exercises where different students must adopt certain positions, even if contrary to their own personal views.
Outside the classroom, we pride ourselves on the range of speakers and activities. At the college level, we have created a debate/discussion series with multiple speakers on controversial current topics. We also have a convocation series of speakers and performers. Additionally, many faculty departments, student groups, and community organizations sponsor speakers and panels. For example, the League of Women Voters organized a candidates’ night at First Church a few days before we went to the polls.
All of us have choices on how to react to these events. We can choose to attend and engage in the discussion, asking tough questions if we wish. We can indicate our disapproval of a topic, a speaker, or a format by boycotting the event, passing out information about our views, or by creating our own events.
Oberlin offers many opportunities for constructive engagement with various views. I believe in active engagement in discussions, by listening, by posing questions, and by offering arguments as appropriate. I am convinced this approach benefits all of us, regardless of our views, and will help prepare our students for the meaningful lives we wish for them.
For me, this approach is central to the democratic process and to the responsibilities of citizens. As we saw in the recent elections, American voters take increasingly polarized views on important political issues. Educational institutions such as ours can help us understand these views and the sources of them.
One recent alum came back and she expressed that she loved her Oberlin experience but regretted that she had not had more opportunity to hear views contrary to her own. Now that she works in the policy realm in Washington, she must anticipate and rebut significantly different world views. And perhaps she may wish to find common ground on occasion.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ’92 of Baltimore, echoed that view when she gave the keynote address this past weekend at the 20th anniversary of the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics and the Cole Scholars. She affirmed the importance of working across party lines, saying some of the most stimulating policy discussions occurred in the bipartisan conference of mayors, where searching questions were asked of all sides.
So it is possible to hold strong beliefs and still listen to and learn from others holding different political views. My own personal background leads me to affirm the importance of diverse views. Growing up in a place where my political views and religious beliefs put me in a minority, it was crucial to understand others and to listen to them and ask them to listen to me. I have found those early lessons invaluable in many contexts, ranging from government to education to volunteer organizations.
We acknowledge that, in the frenzied, overheated world of political debate fueled by sensationalist media reports, upholding the values of open inquiry and dissent may be challenging at times. But this mission is an essential pillar of Oberlin’s purpose.
Our predecessors here struggled with finding the right balance. So will those who follow us. I am confident that our faculty, staff and students—and those to come—can honor our values and create the engaging environment we all seek. I invite community members to join in this discussion, and to speak with me if they choose.