Breaking the Silence


FIRST THERE was the "U.S. out of Grenada" rally, Reagan supporters on campus staged their own counter-demonstration, while others criticized the rally both for being too emotional and for being held without enough information available on the Grenada situation to prove that the invasion was unwarranted. Then there was the Weinberger speech, where a large portion of the audience heckled, chanted, and shouted, forcing Weinberger to interrupt his speech several times. Observers, liberal and conservative alike, thought the protestors had gone too far this time, and had infringed upon the right of free speech of the Secretary of Defense (or War, as the protestors would have it).

These positions and the current feeling around the campus are far from the atmosphere of slightly over a decade ago--the days of Fanon and Camus in the hip pocket. The Administration has done a good job of stifling student protest (the most memorable act of civil disobedience on campus that I can remember was a late night sit-in in Lamont a few years ago, where "protestors" won more library hours). We now see the result student groups are quiet, increasingly stripped of power, and heavily criticized when they step outside limited boundaries. Sure, there were problems with the actions of students in the late 60s and early 70s, but the ideas and actions supported by a majority today are not exempt from criticism. From the Grenada rally and the Weinberger speech emerge ideas seemingly unquestioned, that need much more debate.

Respectability. Many who do not like what the protestors did to Weinberger feel there must be a certain level of respect shown to our government officials. Yet, in a large political forum, the respect shown a political figure need not be the same as that shown to a private individual in a one-to-one encounter. Basically, the respect we should show a government official should be commensurate with the respect we feel for him. Caspar Weinberger, who many--including myself--feel is an accomplice of murder in Central America among other things, deserves only enough respect from the left so that the left does not alienate the middle. The isolated incident of protestors throwing water balloons with red ink hurts the popularity views; in this sense, it goes too far. But any argument that appeals to patriotism and American values to force out respect is merely a tool of a political creed that shuns political conflict in support of the status quo.

Free Speech. First, it should be recognized that Weinberger was able to deliver his speech and answer questions. The hecklers interfered with but did not prevent his speech (which was not free, it cost $3 to get in). The cornerstone of every letter to the editor and editorial damning the hecklers is that they used force and intimidation to prevent the Secretary from speaking a charge which is simply untrue. Second, Weinberger did not come to the Law School Forum motivated by a desire to participate in the "marketplace of ideas," the arena where ideas are articulated, tested, and refuted. He advanced no new ideas, nor even old ones in new ways. Instead, his speech must be seen in a political context--perhaps a testing of the waters alter Grenada and before the Presidential season (or even a possible invasion of Nicaragua). In that case, political opposition would have done well to be as vocal and militant as possible.

The ideal of free speech holds where all ideas are given an equal hearing in the "marketplace." This ideal, however, is not reality, those with views that do not receive attention are forced to present their ideas where and when they can. Free speech and the debate of ideas has never been the real linchpin of our political system. The current administration expresses its view of democracy starkly by stating that it has a mandate from the American people, though it was elected by a slim margin. Administration officials also said that the half-million protestors in Central Park last year would not impact its nuclear arms policy, holding that elections are when we make choices. Are we then to be mute, wide-eyed observers, pulling a lever every four years?

The scariest part of the recent TV show The Day After was not the destruction, which was mildly portrayed, but the catatonic state of people who were not as much shell-shocked as merely continuing the "sarvival" strategy which they had practiced before the bomb went off. All too often we take a catatonic stance--but to do so at the times when someone like Weinberger is in the room is suicide. If students agree that some issues demand participation, what would they have protestors do--sit stonily silent without even applauding the end of the speech? Stand silently in robes with fingers pointing at the Secretary? Hiss in the grand old Harvard tradition? But there is a difference between a bad movie and a bad political regime. The latter, the Reagan Administration, needs to be opposed "by any means acceptable" to the majority of the population Heckling, without shutting the speaker down completely, surely does not go beyond basic liberal principles though if seems to have attended some liberal tastes.

Emotionalism. At the speech, Reager Fisher, Williston Professor of Law appealed to the audience's intellectual side, saying that by listening to Weinberger one would have a greater artillery with which to shoot him down. Fisher is undoubtedly correct, yet there are other goals beside being able to defeat the Secretary in a debate (as many in the audience would no doubt have been able to do). Emotionalism at the speech or at the Grenada rally serves two important purposes quite apart from this.

The first is that emotionalism is a way to build a political movement. Of course, pure emotionalism is to be disdained a movement must be built on understanding. But people do not act purely on intellectual understanding--for example. Reagan's success is closely tied to his ability to evoke emotions. There is a danger that emotionalism can be carried to an extreme--but understanding its proper role is necessary for any successful movement. A certain amount of emotionalism is necessary to tie people into a movement, to visibly express one's more-than-intellectual beliefs, to forge a spirit of unity, and to make a statement to the opposition. Those who disagree are welcome to enter into the planning for future rallies and demonstrations. The best place to translate one's beliefs into action is in the planning, not in the post-mortem dissection of an event.

Second, emotionalism serves as a vent to frustrated emotions. Politicized violence and riots often act more as therapy than as practical initiative. For an oppressed person in Roxbury or the Third World, free speech is an unfamiliar abstraction. But the opportunity to stand up and redeem one's worth as a human being through militant or violent action is not.

It does seem odd to begin a discussion of militancy at Harvard with the oppression of people, Harvard being such a privileged domain and all. Yet the emotionalism we see here is also a release, a sort of therapy for people who believe that their own government is responsible for death and oppression, for immoral acts, for threatening the life on the planet through nuclear arms. For people who recognize their powerlessness in the face of entrenched structures, emotionalism is the barest minimum of a release. If this does not necessarily justify emotionalism, it certain helps explain it.

MORE callous than the arguments against action is the implied elitism behind such criticism as: "large groups of students behaved like common, uninformed hecklers. "Common? Moi? Yes, Harvard is to some extent an Ivory Tower, and reasoned debate should flourish here if nowhere else, but reasoned debate can go on ad infinitum, even ad nauseam, while "common" people die, watch Marines invade their country, and have their backyards dug up for missile silos. What is called for is reasoned debate and militancy--militancy which, like that of the hecklers, still allows reasoned debate to continue.

Some raise fears about what the leftists who jeered Weinberger would do if they got power--would they clamp down on the free speech of their opponents? Yet isn't this what Reagan tried to do by insinuating that the Freeze movement is infiltrated by Russian communists? Though he later weakened his stance, the public has a long memory for such charges despite later recantations. (This is the danger of red-baiting.)

Further, the people who jeered Weinberger were not part of a unified movement. As anyone who was at the speech should recognize, opposition was largely spontaneous. The planned protests--a prespeech rally and silent robed protestors standing in the speech pointing accusing fingers at Weinberger--have generally escaped criticism. The next time there is a political event on campus, observers should understand just how far is too far, what is effective and for what purposes, and what they personally disapprove of in methods as well as goals, and try to keep the three separate before they start criticizing.