Harvey Mansfield and the First Amendment: The Community Responds
Thank Divisive Speakers, Don't Condemn Them
I could hardly believe my ears: Dr. Khallid Muhammed calling Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras "faggots"; perpetuating hatred between Blacks and Jews. Professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. attributing grade inflation to the rising number of Black students at Harvard. To the collective ears of this politically correct campus, these assertions and accusations were no less than blasphemy.
The recent comments made by Dr. Khallid Muhammed, an Afrocentrist scholar invited by the Afro-American Cultural Center of February 27, and Mansfield were both inflammatory and divisive--with this I have no argument. Unfortunately, I felt reactions to their comments were as narrow-minded as the comments themselves. As a frequent resident of the Undergraduate Council office, I have listened to several members (including a March 10 editorial in The Crimson) relate what must be a common sentiment: speakers who promote racial bigotry must be censured because they ignore the sensitivities of race relations.
Neither of my opponents' arguments involve issues of free speech. The issue is more subtle: should speakers be invited to campus when there is previous knowledge about the controversial content of the speech? Should conscientious members of the community condemn ex ante speech which is obviously offensive and reprehensible?
To my respected colleagues at the Undergraduate Council I have this question: has it been so long since Gov 97?
To quote John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race....If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
Instead of condemning "false" opinion, we should recognize that these comments have two very distinct benefits. First, the dialogue value is extremely high. We must not underestimate the value of discussion. Castigating controversial speakers is antithetical to the Harvard experience; furthermore, holding forums in which the issues are framed in what some would call an inappropriate manner galvanizes the issue at hand. Opponents of the Muhammed/Mansfield genre of "race-speech" cannot deny that with controversy comes discussion. I contend that with discussion comes an enhanced understanding of the issues.
Second, the expression of "false" opinion, while offensively challenging those ideas we hold most sacred, only serves to strengthen these same ideals. It is through intense competition of conflicting ideas in which a quasi- "natural selection" occurs: ideals with the most vitality naturally survive.
I realize that the Muhammad/Mansfield comments reek of insensitivity. People on the opposite side of this issue hold that such insensitivity exacerbates racial tension. Because one of the underlying determinants of racial tension is ignorance, then perhaps insensitivity is merely a symptom of a greater disease: intolerance.
Therefore, worse than insensitivity is intolerance. Worse than divisiveness is an existing dogma left unchallenged. While some members of the Council and the student body castigate Mohammad and Mansfield, I celebrate them for reinforcing what we all already knew: racial bigotry is simply unacceptable. Instead of condemning those with "insensitive" opinions, let us thank them. David L. Hanselman, Jr. '94 Vice-Chair, Undergraduate Council