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Allow me to set a scene: “This is America! We have our founding-father-given, liberal-snowflake-crushing, First Amendment freedom of speech that no one can take from any one of us, so you must let [insert controversial person here] speak. I won’t stand for intellectual debate being suppressed on college campuses!” says the older white male. “Stfu”, says the young woman or man of color, “there’s no reason to give that bigot any of our airtime!” End scene.
Alas, controversial speakers have increasingly become a hot button issue. On the one hand, you have college students who speak out, sometimes aggressively, when they don’t want a particular person to come to give an address or have a debate on their campus. Generally, the students believe that this person is racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise morally reprehensible. On the other, you have people (some students, some commentators, and many faculty) who say that canceling speakers is censorship of ideas at universities where all ideas should be welcome. But it seems to me like all this discussion about free speech is not being conducted in the same language.
Let me begin by being clear: I believe complete freedom of speech is essential.
Say what you want. Preach what you please. If you desire to chuck every slur you can think of at me or anyone, you are legally (for the most part) free to — as am I.
But don’t get it twisted. You can say what you want, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences. If you say something that people think is racist — say, the n-word, for example — those people will call you racist (shocker!), attack your character, call into question your moral standing, and protest your public appearances. And because of those same, beautiful, founding-father-given First Amendment rights, they are free to do so.
Can [insert controversial person here] say what they want? Sure, we can agree on that. But do I have to support their visit to campus so there can be a “productive debate?” Absolutely not. I, and many students like me, recognize and respect free speech and oppose the idea of bigots coming to campuses. These things may seem at odds, but allow me to explain why pushing your debating exercise through the lens of free speech doesn’t work:
The stakes of these conversations could not be more unequal.
In these debates, I know that all you have to gain or lose is academia status points with your friends. “All” I have to lose is my standing as an equal member of the human species. See the asymmetry?
People like me have nothing to gain from debating, “Are Blacks intelligent enough to be at Harvard?”, or “Can women do math?” — which are among the recent controversies — no matter how you place it, like under the guise of SAT score “meritocracy” or some other thinly-veiled hogwash. Even if I were to be most persuasive in that debate and convince whatever ill-informed or bigoted human I was listening to, I would have exerted all that energy and risked everything my (and many other people’s) ancestors fought for ... what? To continue with my life knowing exactly what I did before? You’ll need a better pitch than that.
Many of us are not in a position to take any rights we have as “unalienable” givens. It’s not at all ridiculous for us to say we are risking all our rights by agreeing to such a debate and if you disagree with that, don’t tell it to me — try telling that to all those before me who spent their lives fighting just to be seen as equally deserving human beings. Tell it to all the people who stood against elites making exclusionary and oppressive social policies based on “science”. Tell it to every one of my ancestors who was a slave in America, regarded as property — the women among them even more so. Tell it to every one of them that has lived separately and unequally since then. Tell it to my South African family that had to endure Apartheid (in a country where Harvard had financial ties, lest we forget). Those are the people who you need to convince — not me. I’ll believe it’s a good idea to debate these things when they do. You’ll find most of them dead and buried in unmarked graves with scars from whips on their backs and or the trauma of rape in their souls, so that conversation may be tough. The rest of them, however, are still alive, and I call them “grandma” or “dad,” in case you forgot these atrocities were really not that long ago.
So yes, it quite literally is, and always has been, my and billions of other peoples’ humanity you want to put on the table when you parade racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other oppressive ideology under the umbrella of free speech. It’s not about “feelings,” and reducing it to that won’t help. So no: I, and many others, will not stop using our own free speech to attempt to ensure that our humanity is never on the table again — honoring our ancestry demands that. These are not simply “intellectual exercises.” Not, at least, until someone can convince me that all I have to lose is a debate.
Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.
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