Illiberal attacks on free speech are nothing new. In the early 1970s, the Yale administration pressured the Yale Political Union to disinvite William Shockley, who was in fact a racist. A small group of students had risked the ire of the powerful to issue multiple repeated invitations to Shockley, to test the boundaries of the university’s commitment to unfettered discourse. When he came, the Yale police stood by as student protesters shut down his ability to speak.
In 1974, Yale issued the famous Woodward report, in which, by twelve votes to one, Yale upheld the principles of free speech in a profoundly moving statement of the university as a place committed to truth:
The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views. . . .
Because few other institutions in our society have the same central function, few assign such high priority to freedom of expression. Few are expected to. Because no other kind of institution combines the discovery and dissemination of basic knowledge with teaching, none confronts quite the same problems as a university.
For if a university is a place for knowledge, it is also a special kind of small society. Yet it is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.
Only one person, a Yale law student, dissented, in terms today’s Yale protesters (if such a word can be used to describe students begging adults to provide them a home) would appreciate:
The Majority view is based on a positivist belief that science is a mode of inquiry by which man comes to learn incontrovertible truths. . . . In contradistinction to this view, philosophers and social scientists have been telling us for years that all knowledge is relative, the result of social conditioning. . . . Thus, the notion that free expression strains our ideas through a firing line of rational dialogue is too simplistic: even after this process, we might remain pre-conditioned in some sense.
Karl Mannheim develops the concept of ideology as another means by which an individual’s social situation systematically distorts his way of thinking, thereby limiting the attainment of “objectivity” even if free speech is allowed. . . . At the very least, before free speech can become a possibility, it will require liberation from and increased self-consciousness of the social and irrational factors that condition knowledge and pre-form the meanings and structures of language. . . . Under certain circumstances, free expression is outweighed by more pressing issues, including liberation of all oppressed people and equal opportunities for minority groups.
That debate took place 40 years ago, but its winds are blowing through Yale today. Hundreds of Yale students signed a letter criticizing the arguments that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence” should take precedence over other considerations:
“To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is — offensive,” the letter said.
“To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you.”
I’ve thought about that sentence a great deal, because it is true. And because it was as true for me as it is for those self-described students of color.
Yale was not made for students like me either. When I flew across the country to attend Yale in the fall of 1978, most of the students I met couldn’t even pronounce the name of my home properly. Yale was not made for people from Oregon, a state that did not exist when Yale was made. Yale was not made for graduates of middle-class public high schools either, and certainly Yale was not made by or for women. The first female students were admitted to Yale College less than ten years before I set foot on campus, and boys still outnumbered girls in my class by about 2 to 1. Yale was not made by atheists, which I was at the time, and it certainly was not made for libertarian conservatives, devotees of Ayn Rand, which I also was at the time.
None of my professors were white atheist women Randians from middle-class Oregon families, as far as I know, and I think I would have known.
None of my professors were white atheist women Randians from middle-class Oregon families, as far as I know.
I could have sat and pondered all the ways that Yale did not make me feel at home. Instead I plunged gleefully into Yale, appropriated for myself its sense of tradition, and made a community for myself where none had existed for centuries before. Just as gleefully, I confronted the majority of Yale students and faculty who profoundly disagreed with many values and truths I held (and hold) dear.
There is nothing extraordinary about me. Here’s the most important thing that I want very much to pass on to the young Yale woman screaming at the Silliman master that he is disgusting, because he doesn’t understand that his job is to make Yale a “place of comfort and home for people who live in Silliman”: Don’t use family metaphors to describe public places and institutions.
A “home” is indeed something sacred, a sacred space. Don’t give your power over to any Yale employee to make or take one from you. There is a reason totalitarians reach for that metaphor: because they want to appropriate the powerful emotions and longing that only intimate relationships can provide for essentially public and political purposes. Make a home for yourself, and that way no one can take it from you.
Accept your moral obligation in a diverse democracy to be thick-skinned. There is no way we can live with each other, across our profound moral differences, except by accepting this obligation not as something imposed on us from outside, but as a deep moral obligation. Assume good will. Don’t imagine that your suffering is more intense than others because it is based on gender or race or sexual orientation or political ideology. Be kind, be strong, be thick-skinned.
#share#Don’t look for a home from Yale. Don’t sell yourself that cheap.
Earlier this week, Dean Jonathan Holloway stepped in to introduce University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who had been invited months before to give a speech opposing affirmative action.
In the best of Yale’s traditions and the Woodward report, Dean Holloway reminded students of their obligation not to prevent or disrupt the speech. “By preventing anyone from bringing ideas into the light of the day, we deny a fundamental freedom.”