“Speech is not violence – it is how we avoid violence.” -Christina Sommers
In her op-ed column “When the Liberal Bubble is Justified,” The Daily Pennsylvanian opinion writer Lucy Hu makes a case that Penn’s “liberal bubble” is beneficial to the university.
Her case is not a strong one.
Firstly, Hu simply assumes conservatism is racist without offering a shred of hard evidence:
“The lives of racial minorities should not be used as horseplay for political banter. This is a realm where viewpoints from the right seek to silence those who have already been traditionally suppressed. . . . Racial affairs is not an issue where the left and right can sit in a room, pour tea, munch crackers, and hash out a great societal outcome.”
But why not? Why is calm dialogue on issues of race simply assumed to be impossible? In what ways is conservatism racist to the degree that it would be impossible to have a productive conversation with a conservative about race?
Hu first attempts to answer this question by noting that many on the right refuse to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet this simply fails to consider that many conservatives fully believe that police brutality is a problem when it occurs but do not believe that it is a statistically-widespread phenomenon. It is patently clear that this is entirely different from believing that it is morally acceptable for cops to intentionally shoot innocent black men in cold blood due to the color of their skin. The conflation of the two is disingenuous at best.
Hu then points, almost comically, to the slogan “All Lives Matter” as further evidence of the inherent compatibility of conservatism with racism. Of course it could be the case that proponents of such a slogan may miss the point that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to convey, but to merely state (truthfully!) that “All Lives Matter” is not prima facie evidence that one is racist.
Now of course, there are genuine racists who call themselves conservatives. There are also racists who identify as liberals or socialists or libertarians. This is not so much intrinsic to conservatism as it is intrinsic to the tragedy of the natural human condition, regardless of political affiliation.
Hu continues, and perhaps more disturbingly so:
“Perhaps limiting conservative viewpoints serves to halt the perpetuation of traditionally stronger voices, giving a voice to those who have been historically silenced. . . . I will refuse to dignify ‘discourse’ on my inferiority, especially in an environment where conservative ideas perpetuate minority discrimination. Open debate cannot be a chance for politics to rebut my identity. The liberal push-back defends intolerance of ideas that society agrees are fundamentally injurious.. . . there are issues that are so fundamentally entangled in a group’s basic rights that they transcend the arena of meaningful political discussion.” [emphasis added]
Following this line of reasoning, there are two categories of speech: that which is “so fundamentally entangled in a group’s basic rights” so as to preclude it from being dignified, and that which isn’t – ideas which we can (and should) debate.
But this begs the all-important question: who gets to decide which ideas belong in which category?
Hu’s answer is that “society” should decide.
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that the criteria for exactly what constitutes acceptable discourse, as determined by society, are constantly changing – for better or for worse.
But perhaps more importantly, if the standard for what constitutes acceptable discourse is what society currently deems to be acceptable, then this works fine – so long as the majority gets things right. But what if society gets something of great moral importance wrong? When the majority errs, the consequences of letting society decide what is allowed to be debated can be – and have historically been – egregious.
If the majority obtains total control of the societal flow of ideas and refuses to tolerate any challenge to its views, then, consequently, society will be less likely to come to the truth. (This seems self-evident: one is more likely to believe falsehood if the falsehood is not debated or challenged.) And even worse, if it is the case that any speech that opposes the majority is not “dignified,” then not only will the majority fall into error, but they will drag the entire society right along with them.
This same level of risk is simply not present in a society where people are free to challenge the statements of every party or group without experiencing any form of censorship.
The painful irony is that, despite her ostensible support of the minority, Hu’s support for “limiting” viewpoints (censorship) poses a far greater danger to minority groups that fall outside the mainstream than a society that embraces open debate from all groups.
One need not agree with an idea to tolerate its expression. Certainly, this responsibility to tolerate all views – even views one finds reprehensible – does not mean that each person has a duty to spend time voluntarily debating all views. Nevertheless, we must not “limit” ideas; we must tolerate the expression of any idea. This is not always a good thing, but it is infinitely better than any alternative.