On September 19th, the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative hosted a panel entitled “Are We Killing Free Speech?” The panelists—Dave Rubin, Bret Weinstein, and Steve Simpson—were intelligent, articulate, and thought-provoking.
It was an attentive but quiet crowd; no protesters, no walk out. That the event was open only to Harvard ID holders became a point of discussion. Rubin lamented the fact that universities must be so strict to ensure that events like these remain safe and civil; Simpson sympathized with the university’s policy in light of the difficulty of taking on such a responsibility.
The event was co-hosted by the Harvard Libertarian Club and the Ayn Rand Institute. Free copies of Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were handed out at the entrance. While Simpson and Rubin have ties to the Ayn Rand Institute, Weinstein brought a unique perspective to the discussion.
Weinstein is a biology professor and lifelong liberal who was pressured to resign from Evergreen State College after he wrote an email objecting to the college’s optional “Day of Absence” program. During the Day of Absence, which was offered as optional, white community members were asked to go off campus to discuss race and equity. The program had previously involved students of color leaving for the day, to illustrate their impact on the community via their absence. This year, the program was swapped.
In his email, Weinstein argued: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles…and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” He wrote that the latter was “an act of oppression in and of itself.”
I think that the program’s lofty goals overwhelmed its ostensibly forceful methods, which in fact respectfully protected the right to opt out. But Weinstein’s argument made me think. It was well-reasoned, given the principles he holds dear. The question of whether individual rights as staunchly inviolable or sometimes subordinate to greater public good is one of the most classic in political philosophy.
So while I ultimately disagree with his argument, I’m glad he raised it. And I am disappointed that his decision prompted aggressive backlash, threats, and ultimately the need for his resignation. It was the students’ response that ironically lent Weinstein’s argument validity. Their display of liberal intolerance counterproductively proved his very point and undermined the efforts of the initial program.
Throughout the panel, the panelists showed a lack of regard for broader social and political context. Somehow, it was both shortsightedly insensitive, and impressively principled. Simpson claimed that Trump’s attacks on CNN are no different than Obama’s attacks on Fox News, and that the white nationalists and Antifa were both culpable in Charlottesville—notions which neglect the nation’s long tradition of silencing non-white voices. But there is nobility in consistently fighting for free speech as an end in itself, rather than selectively as a means to sanction only preferred voices.
The fact that I don’t agree with much of what the panelists said or stood for was why I got so much out of the event. Sitting down with people we disagree with is one of the bravest and most productive things we can do. I believe in hearing all sides of an argument and critically thinking about them before reaching any conclusions. I am saddened by the fact that recently, these beliefs and my progressive ones have often seemed incongruous. The fact that a ‘free speech’ rally in Boston drew a crowd of thousands of progressives protesting white nationalism is indicative either that the alt-right has successfully co-opted free speech, or the left has erroneously chosen to reject it. Likely both are true, and equally problematic.
I have little patience for free speech absolutists who use the principle as a way to myopically claim that conservative white men are the new victims of oppression. The fact that in recent years those voices have been underrepresented on college campuses is a historical anomaly that is actually quite encouraging.
With that in mind, I feel grossly ill-equipped to converse with intelligent, eloquent conservatives with whom I may disagree. While America as a nation may not need people fighting to give people like Charles Murray a louder voice, I believe Harvard and many other college campuses do. Just as the best teachers assign readings that represent all sides of scholarly debates, our campus should host those who hold diverse and well-argued opinions.
If liberals are not driven by open dialogue as a principle and civil liberty, then we should get behind it as a strategic approach to furthering progressive goals. Hearing well-reasoned conservative or libertarian views, and then thinking about why or in what ways we disagree, is arming ourselves to challenge those views when we encounter them. Being intolerant and closed-minded to other opinions is only providing valid ammunition to critics of the progressive agenda, and setting us up to be put on our heels by all the bright conservatives who have had years of experience defending their views.
Bret Weinstein was hurled into the spotlight not by his own views but by the response they provoked. If liberal, politically-active college students can’t learn to engage with different opinions, the future of the progressive agenda and the nation as a whole will be grim. Let’s make dialogue a liberal thing before it’s too late.
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