The University of Chicago made a strong statement with its letter to the incoming Class of 2020, by disavowing the use of so-called “trigger warnings” and the creation of safe spaces in favor of a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”
This is only the latest salvo in an ongoing culture war over the nature of free speech.
A commitment to free speech is an admirable thing. American universities have been hotbeds of activity and idealism for much of their existence and the University of Chicago is actively seeking to continue that tradition on its campus. Demonstrations, discussions and debates should be held and speakers of diverse beliefs and backgrounds should be invited to speak at every opportunity.
An invitation by a university to a controversial speaker should not be viewed as an endorsement of that person’s ideas, but instead as an endorsement of their right to voice them. It should be viewed as a valuable opportunity to participate in the American democratic experiment.
Students should be encouraged to defend and develop their beliefs independently, and in opposition to viewpoints they are exposed to over the course of their secondary education. If a speaker is objectionable, then students should challenge them, question them, write an op-ed or an email. Retreating into a bubble of like-minded people and refusing to allow alternate viewpoints to be heard or entertained is the surest way to keep oneself from growing. If free speech is to truly carry meaning, it necessitates listening and response.
When it comes down to it, really objectionable speakers and ideas can also be avoided. If a topic upsets you, you are under no compulsion to expose yourself to it. Websites and publications do not have to be read and speaking events can be skipped. Your silent (or not so silent) protest is an exercise of free speech. However, agitating for the curtailment of free speech for one person because their ideas make you uncomfortable is self-defeating. What if someone is uncomfortable with your ideas? Silencing ideas you do not like just because you do not like them is against the very spirit of education. Dispute an idea on its merits and let it rise or fall on that.
The theory of evolution, heliocentricity and the efficacy and benefits of democracy were once subversive ideas that made a lot of people uncomfortable, but students and academics refused to let these ideas be silenced. Religious and secular authorities and the general public gave voice to their discomfort in no uncertain terms, but the spirit of inquiry and debate remained alive, and today these ideas are widely accepted, and are in fact an integral part of our society and our modern understanding of science.
More universities should follow the example of Chicago.
To be clear, as Chicago’s dean of students writes, “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.” What it does mean is a belief in the power of ideas and an unflinching commitment to the expression of those ideas. No university is encouraging or enabling hate speech or harassment by advocating for free speech. Nearly all institutes of higher education already have policies against such speech and disciplinary courses of action that can be taken.
For that reason, no student today should be afraid of what they will encounter in college. They should be excited at the opportunity to stand up for what they believe and to interact with a diverse student body in a marketplace of ideas.
The University of Chicago has written that it will not condone the use of trigger warnings and that students should be prepared to be challenged on campus. What is interesting is that that statement itself constitutes a trigger warning of sorts. It is a content advisory, stating that you will not be allowed to enter university and leave unchallenged.
Perhaps it should be the motto of all universities: “Warning! Free Inquiry Within!”
John Roberts of Lexington is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky.