Posted in: Campus

The Role of Provocative Speech

By | February 8, 2017

Recently, there has been considerable discourse surrounding the issue of free speech on college campuses. The most vocal participants in the conversation have crystallized into two extremes. One contingent feverishly offers up shocking examples of censorship in dire-sounding Atlantic op-eds, triumphantly assailing a supposed monolith of liberal PC anti-speech millennials. The other extreme militarily and indignantly espouses values like “safety” and “comfort”, forming sanctimonious mobs upon encountering anything deemed unsafe. While there has been much thoughtful analysis on the issue of free speech, it is often drowned out by this firefight.

Safe Speech vs. Free Speech

Most students do not fall into either of these extremes. Most agree that freedom of speech is valuable, but also feel that respect is a worthy goal. The real issue lies in determining when ensuring respect turns into censorship. For instance, a recent Crimson editorial attempted to address the University of Chicago letter on safe spaces and trigger warnings. The conclusion began confidently, “Universities should strive to strike a balance between ensuring students’ right to express dissent and combatting kind of vitriol that stifles, rather than furthers, free discussion in a free society. In their original forms, safe spaces and content warnings can help achieve this goal, but at their most extreme, they can threaten it.”

The editorial successfully identified two conflicting platitudes: free speech is crucial and safe spaces can be good, but at the same time, some safe spaces can be bad, and some speech shouldn’t be allowed. However, it struggled to explain how these concerns should be reconciled (unless you see the suggestion to “strike a balance” as substantial). And it’s easy enough to state that “vitriol” is unproductive and doesn’t have a place at a university, but what exactly falls under that category? Harassment and personal insults would definitely not be considered constructive, and certainly shouldn’t be considered acceptable discourse. But how does this standard apply to ideological arguments that are very offensive, or even disturbing to others? This vague have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach—and the use of agreeable banalities to discuss the issue of free speech—reflects the general confusion on campus. Students struggle to meaningfully engage with the conflict between free speech and safe spaces (which are already difficult to define).

So how should we reconcile the conflict between striving for free speech and attempting to maintain respectful dialogue? I believe that there are important reasons why objectionable speech deserves to be heard, or at the very least should not be silenced. It is necessary to recognize why “ensuring respect” is an admirable objective, but also a highly broad aim that can often lead down a slippery slope of misapplication. Moreover, the term “respect” itself is unclear. Just as we have seen the requirement for emotional safety being extended to the academic sphere, we see the concomitant expansion of what is deemed “disrespectful”, from insults that do not respect individuals to arguments that do not respect certain ideas.

Offensive to the Status Quo

Universities are places of intellectual exploration. Speech, dialogue, argument, and discussion are some the strongest contributors to this mission of discovery. Oftentimes, those who believe superficially in free speech will say that people should be able to say whatever they want, unless it’s “offensive.” But by definition, if speech is restricted based on how offensive it may seem to some, then speech isn’t free. Moreover, the use of “offensive” as a dirty label to imply that this type of speech is inherently less valuable is inaccurate. The value of speech should be judged by its intellectual rigor and thoughtfulness, not the degree to which it conforms to a set of predefined comfortable norms.

However, it is not uncommon for students to hold the belief that if speech is unpalatable, it is automatically less important to hear. In an interview with the HPR, Devontae Freeland ’19 remarked, “I think the role for provocative and offensive speech is for it to be told that it is provocative and offensive … the First Amendment doesn’t prevent me from telling someone else that maybe they shouldn’t say something. They still may have the right to say it, but maybe they shouldn’t.”

Freeland establishes that we should respond to offensive speech by labeling it as such and discouraging it. However, we have to recognize that unpalatable speech can have a valuable role that goes beyond simply “[being] told that it is provocative and offensive.” One of the main ways we benefit from free speech is that unconstrained dialogue gives us the power to challenge the status quo of existing ideas. The fact that speech is unpalatable only means it does not conform to the existing norms of thought in a certain time period or setting, not that it intrinsically has any less merit. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker told the HPR, “All new ideas are offensive, provocative, and objectionable to someone. The idea that the earth goes around the sun, that African Americans should not be enslaved, that women should have the vote, that homosexuality should not be a crime—all of these were provocative and objectionable in their time.”

The Subjectivity of Disrespect

The value of offensive speech becomes clearer when we ourselves aren’t offended by it. Following the shooting at Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “I am Not Charlie Hebdo” in the New York Times in which he pointed out the inherent hypocrisy of people “who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.” The material published by Charlie Hebdo—with its unique radical left-wing and secular editorial stance—was undoubtedly very offensive to many people, like those who objected to the magazine’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in satirical cartoons. Likewise, Colin Kaepernick’s recent refusal to stand during the national anthem—a symbolic action that sparked discourse on racism, American values, and the protest itself—was surely very offensive and disrespectful in the eyes of certain individuals. But it’s hard to argue that due to their provocative natures, both the magazine and Kaepernick’s protest had no role beyond being told off simply because some people found them objectionable.

These examples also shed light on the fact that assessing the “offensiveness” of a statement is a highly subjective matter. In an environment where avoiding potential emotional discomfort is the name of the game, claiming someone’s speech violates your sensibilities becomes a highly effective way to silence that person. As a result, we start to see instances in which the concept of a safe space is weaponized to serve certain political ends.

This includes labels that are used to shut down particular unpalatable opinions. Today, words like “racist,” “bigot,” and “sexist” are hurled toward certain types of people with such frequency and zeal that these terms have lost much of their original meaning and impact.

But weaponizing these phrases as buzzwords to attack others is almost never productive. Conor Healy ’19 told the HPR, “Surely our responsibility is not to degrade [people] by calling them racists—surely our responsibility is to try and convince them, and to try to be concerned for their ideological progress, rather than their supposed status as sleepwalking oppressors.” At its root, free speech is optimistic, resting on the conviction that dialogue and inquiry can always be used to grow intellectually and further understanding. And as argued in a previous HPR piece, silencing offensive or provocative speech often just magnifies it.

Fighting Speech with Speech

So what should we do when we hear speech that offends us? Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has an answer. In an interview with the HPR, Creeley stated, “The best answer to speech that offends or provokes you is more speech. I think that silencing people for their offensive or provocative positions gives them a certain type of notoriety and forecloses the possibility of answering them and discrediting them with reason or with statistics or with better arguments.”

Ultimately, respectful speech should never supersede free speech. Speech that doesn’t offend us is always more pleasant, and disagreeable arguments are often hard to hear. But speech should never be censored solely because it is provocative—only then can it be truly free.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fibonacci Blue

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