Defense in the Face of Disapproval

In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre published The Friends of Voltaire. An anecdotal biography that tells the stories of the friends of Voltaire, in it Hall coined the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Often misattributed to Voltaire himself, Hall’s phrase is said to sum up the principle of free speech.

Free speech encapsulates all sorts of activities that enable communication, and there are numerous ways to justify it. It facilitates the protection of rights within a political system, allows individuals to represent views essential to their identity and personhood, and acts as a prerequisite for dialogue and argument. The right and exercise of liberty via speech is a method of social interaction that, ideally, does not and ought not discriminate among lines of race, sex, gender, ability, or class.

PROTESTORS in New York march for freedom of speech.

PROTESTORS in New York march for freedom of speech.

However, like all of our rights, it is at those times when a right is threatened that we all ought to most ardently fight for it. When freedom of speech is attacked, it is dialogue, discussion, and protest that protect it and allow it to prosper. While it is easy to defend free speech when what someone is advocating for doesn’t adversely affect you personally, it is much harder to stand by it when it does. Even The Review— a champion of free speech and personal liberty—is not immune to this sad reality.

On April 1, 2018, a coalition of four undergraduate students sent an email out to campus via the All-Undergraduate Listserv. Prior to being sent out to all students, this coalition sent a very similar email to the presidents of all of Dartmouth’s Greek Organizations. This coalition was very transparent in their lack of affiliation with any codified Dartmouth organization, and proposed a “Night of Solidarity” to take place on the night of April 6, 2018 following the Take Back the Night march to “protest sexual violence, stand in solidarity with survivors of violence, and demand visibility and safety on campus and beyond for all individuals.”

This “Night of Solidarity” was requested for all social spaces on Dartmouth’s campus— “Greek houses, off-campus houses, non-Greek social and living communities, etc.”— in order to ask the Dartmouth community to “think about survivors of violence, reflect on the harm that has been done, and consider potential was to improve the safety of our social spaces on campus.” In its email, the coalition of students acknowledged the potential limits of this act and encouraged organizations to hold internal group discussions, share stories of sexual violence that have taken place on Dartmouth’s campus, and facilitate inter-group dialogue as well.

Different members of The Review had different responses to the coalition’s request. One member called for The Review to make a statement condemning the request as they considered it to be coercive towards the Greek System and an ineffective method of addressing the problem of sexual assault on Dartmouth’s campus. Multiple members stated that they wanted to wait to see the responses from Greek Organizations before making any statement. Another member agreed with the original claim of coerciveness, going as far as to say that it would force capitulation. The response to this claim from multiple other members of The Review was that the email did not qualify as coercive for a few reasons.There was a claim that if fraternities and sororities agreed to close their doors, these organizations deemed this act as important enough to do so. One person then brought up that organizations had the right to either refuse to participate in the endeavor or in its entirety or engage in similar activism in another way that the organization deemed more productive. Another member referred to this brand of community activism as a representation of democracy at work while referencing the fact that they don’t believe in democracy. After this small tangent, multiple members reiterated that Greek Houses were not being forced to close— the coalition a) had no mechanism of enforcing participation and b) were simply requesting participation. Here, someone raised a worry about the potential backlash that houses that chose not to participate would face. The response was straightforward: a fear of backlash is not coercive and houses could choose to participate in other ways besides closing their basement.

I write this article not to needlessly air The Review’s dirty laundry. I write this to let it be known that even the most ardent defenders of free speech can waiver in their defense of someone else’s right to speak and protest when it affects their way of life— even when this hesitation constitutes an exercise of free speech, and even for something as objectively trivial as a single on-night away from the Greek system. We all love our houses, and the idea of those spaces being closed off to us was frightening. We all have planned events that night that we were looking forward to. We all worry about the day that hopefully never comes when Greek Life is no longer seen on Dartmouth’s campus.

But some of those in The Review who initially felt that the coalition’s request was unreasonable did not waver — they asserted that this group of “random,” unaffiliated students had no right to demand organizations to close their social spaces, unless they went through “proper channels.” This reaction was not based in logic, or even in fact (the coalition did go to the leadership of the Greek houses before they sent the campus-wide email), but rather in something more visceral — it was a gut-reaction to a form of activism they did not understand, and thus feared. Reactive feelings clouded distanced, rational judgement, and the result was an ignorance of any of the potential benefits of the coalition’s proposal and a hyper-focus on the insecurities of the Greek system. Perhaps that was the most fatal flaw of all of these arguments calling for the condemnation of the coalition’s proposal on grounds other than its effectiveness — that is, in voicing so vehemently the ways in which this maneuver would hurt the Greek system, it ignored the broadness of the coalition’s request — that all organization’s closed their social spaces — and placed the Greek houses in the “victim position,” wrongfully confusing a call to action on the part of every organization with a direct attack on the Greek houses.

The knee-jerk, fearful response that some of the members of The Review had to the coalition’s request is not all too different from the discomfort individuals on the left have when a conservative speaker is brought to a college campus. It is not all too different from what prevents pro-life individuals from engaging in a conversation with pro-choice activists, Democrats from arguing politics with Republicans, or hard-core consequentialists from reading Kant. We, as an organization, condemn echo chambers and groupthink. We value the marketplace of ideas and we encourage critical dialogue on a range of issues. However, when it comes to ideas that require tangible sacrifices and self-criticism, we fall prey to our own selfishness and insecurity. Undoubtedly, it is hard to engage in an uncomfortable discussion. It is difficult to challenge deeply held beliefs. It’s not easy to stand by one’s words in public, and sometimes it can even be difficult to stand by one’s convictions in private. Instead of challenging the effectiveness of the coalition’s activism, individuals advocated for condemning the coalition’s very attempt at bringing about discussion. Instead of engaging in dialogue with members of the coalition, people resorted to the last salvation of a losing man—name calling and insults.

For just a moment, some members of The Review’s “safe-space for conservatism” justified infringing on the coalition’s right to free speech because they were afraid of the effect the coalition’s call to action would have on their way of life for a single evening.

As was acknowledged in The Review’s discussion of the coalition’s request, nobody participating in the discussion condones sexual assault— like most of this campus, we and our loved ones have been personally affected by sexual violence and wholeheartedly support survivors and campus reform. The question was whether the coalition had a right to demand support from campus in this way, and—if it did—whether closing down houses for a night would prove to be an effective instigator of change.

The value of free speech is that people can engage in dialogue that allows all viewpoints to be presented— regardless of what those viewpoints are. Asking someone to participate in an uncomfortable conversation that one deems to be valuable isn’t coercive— it is the core of free speech. While an individual always has a right to refuse to participate in a discussion, they ought not refuse on the basis of fear, or worse, selfishness. It is inherently selfish to not want to have a conversation because that conversation would pose a minor inconvenience. In the case of the coalition’s request to campus organizations, the stakes were small: only one, single on-night had to be sacrificed. Cowardice and selfishness should not be rewarded with the support of an echo-chamber. If we value freedom of speech— if we value the comfort of dialogue— then we must equally so value uncomfortable conversations.

I do not agree with the well-warranted opinions of most of the people I interact with. But I will defend to the death their right to be wrong. A defense of free speech depends not on the content of the speech — words cannot speak for themselves, and human rights ought not be contextual. Complex political and social issues are undoubtedly complicated. But their solutions demand nuance that can only be discovered through the use of respectful dialogue. Shutting the door to a conversation does not shut the door to change. It only breeds alienation and a lack of understanding. I have less of a reason to defend the speech that represents the ideas that are already widespread and popular— those do not need defending. Nobody threatens speech that they agree with. I have no reason to defend hate speech— it doesn’t qualify as speech. It is the speech that we have reasonable disagreement with that we have the highest obligation to defend. Because those ideas that we fear are those arguments we need to have. I have no obligation to believe what your speech says, but I have every obligation and every reason to listen to you support your ideas. I can exercise my right to remain unconvinced as long as you exercise your right to try to convince me based on the merits of your argument.

It is in the name of my disapproval of certain arguments that I defend a person’s right to make them. And it is in my disapproval that I exercise my own right to free speech.