Several weeks ago, a graduate student representative to the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska spoke out against “a resolution that would encourage students not to use derogatory language,” arguing that it “was a restriction of free speech.” He quoted a routine by Chris Rock (which led him to use the n-word multiple times) and made other comments about minority groups.
In the immediate aftermath, one undergraduate student representative called for a hearing and for a possible impeachment vote. The chancellor of the university, Harvey Perlman, condemned racial intolerance and proposed a “Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever” campaign at the university. And good deal of debate arose as a result of this mess.
Many people focused on the issue of free speech, arguing that a person has the right to express his or her opinion however noxious that opinion might be. This is clearly the case. The best response to offensive or obnoxious speech is more speech.
But this discussion of free speech is also pretty clearly a red herring. No one’s freedom of speech was ever at issue here.
As I understand it, the resolution in question wouldn’t have made it illegal for ASUN representatives to use derogatory language; it would have discouraged them from doing so . It’s amazing to me that in 2013 a) elected student representatives need to be formally discouraged from using derogatory language; b) elected student representatives felt that formally discouraging the use of derogatory language amounted to a restriction of speech; and c) a graduate student decided that the best way to make the point about the value of free speech was to use derogatory language himself.
It has long been the case that a person can say (almost) whatever he likes without fear of arrest, prosecution, and punishment. But this is most definitely not the same thing as arguing that a person can say (almost) whatever he likes without fear of any consequences.
If you say things that people find offensive, and if those offended people propose a campaign to combat the very insensitive and offensive things you’ve said, publicly making you the obvious target of their disapproval, your freedom of speech hasn’t been violated. You’re simply facing the consequences of loudly and proudly expressing a very, very unpopular opinion.
It seems ludicrous to sugest that, after one person says whatever he or she would like to say, all the rest of us have to nod our heads and pretend that, collectively, we’ve learned absolutely nothing over the past few hundred years lest we impose any sort of consequence on the person who holds opinions we’ve all long ago jettisoned. But that’s precisely what this free speech advocating student wants:
This whole thing, you know, people can say, ‘Oh Cameron, what a jerk,’ but people have to keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes and that’s why you judge people individually, you don’t just judge them on one event. You have to say, ‘Hey, what’s the whole package,’ and some people kind of did that with me – I got a letter that I read that said I should resign.… So yeah, you have to have more time to develop before you can say it was right or wrong…
He doesn’t want people to judge him, he doesn’t want people to call for him to resign, he doesn’t think people have even had enough time to decide whether his speech was right or wrong. None of these things impinge on his right to say the racially-charged things he said. They are all simply consequences that result from having said something that offended a great many people. So, in other words, what he wants is for there to be no consequences at all.
And if anyone does judge him or suggest that a university community ought to work to limit the instances of derogatory language expressed on campus, then he and his staunch defenders will allege that, in fact, it’s those people who are really intolerant. Here’s that student once again:
The very nature of free speech means that you’re going to have people who are intolerant. So, to say that you, so for example, what Chancellor Perlman said, that we will not have intolerable speech, is in itself intolerable. So, in that case, Chancellor Perlman has now become the bigot by infringing on the bigotry of others. That’s part of what makes America great, is that you can be a bigot if you want to, it’s not restricted. It doesn’t make it right but at the same time you can’t say ‘No, we’re going to kick that person out of school,’ or whatever. Because that’s not, you have to understand that you’re going to be offended in a place with free speech. If you don’t want to be offended, move to Cuba, or some other totalitarian state where you can’t say anything unless the state approves it.
Are we, in fact, so intolerant of those with positions we find offensive? Not especially. To my knowledge, no one proposed that the student in question should be kicked out of school and no one proposed “that we will not have intolerable speech.” What the chancellor wrote, instead, was the following:
Racial epithets and racial impersonations are not acceptable anywhere but especially in an institution devoted to education and progress. These acts are not funny. They are not symbolic. They are only cruel. They reflect either malevolence or ignorance….
To those few of us who seem indifferent to the boundaries of basic common decency, I refer you to the fate of those who march on the wrong side of history. To the rest of us, I urge us not to remain silent or indifferent, but to confront and speak out against such outrages and embrace those against whom they are directed.
Perlman was right; the university is an institution devoted to education and progress. As a university community, we are surely entitled to make an argument in favor of inclusivity and to educate those people who stand in opposition to that value. We don’t have to teach racist theories in biology classes; we don’t have to assign equal time to the possible virtues of Nazi ideology or Stalinism in classes on world politics; we don’t have to think critically about the plausibility of Holocaust denial in classes on the Holocaust.
Mostly, we don’t have to say — as this student does — that what’s great about America is that you’re allowed to sterotype and offend members of minority groups without any consequences:
So, the example that I used of the dental student that had dressed up in the sombrero and the corncob for gun belts, you know, a Pancho Villa kind of thing, and they call him Husker Hombre, is that offensive? I don’t think so. Maybe to someone else it is, but the point I was getting across is if you live in a society where all of a sudden you can’t say anything offensive, well then you might as well just be in the Soviet Union, then America ceases to exist….
There’s going to be racism, there’s going to be bigotry, you’re going to run into these people in your life and the question is how do you deal with them? I would be the first to tell you, I’ve lived in San Diego (Calif.), Columbus, Ohio, College Station, Texas, Washington, D.C., North Dakota – I can tell you that certainly, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. It’s like the knockout game you see that has been in the news – that plays into a negative racial stereotype, but it’s being proven to be correct. So stereotypes are earned and that’s what I said about the Irish, you know, people say we’re a bunch of drunken, you know, fightin’ SOBs and it’s kind of true, we are….
If something’s going to be in the back of your mind, like the Trayvon Martin case was a perfect example. No one really knows what happened except the two people that were there and one of them can’t tell the story so we only have one side of it. But, you know, legitimately, if I’m in a big city at night, there are some things you look out for because of the stereotypes.
We’ve reached a point where we can say, “You know, you can say whatever you want but we disapprove of it for a wide variety of reasons that we’re happy to explain to you and, after hearing our reasons if you still want to continue saying these offensive things, we’re disinclined to stand here and listen to you, and we’re disinclined to spend time with you in the future. You can keep saying whatever you want, but you’re going to find yourself saying it to fewer and fewer people. At some point, we hope, you’re going to be talking to yourself.”