Fisher: Don’t stifle free speech

In the last two weeks, I received two e-mails about the chants of DKE’s pledges on Old Campus. The first arrived the morning after the chanting; it included the words of the chant and a call to action to condemn them. The second, a few days later, said the News would not print that day as penance for its offensive editorial two days before.

My initial reaction upon reading the first e-mail was, “This must be a joke”; upon reading the second, several days later, “This must be the apocalypse.”

Turns out I was quite wrong on both counts. The first e-mail was serious; the second a prank. So maybe I’m a fool. But the fact that I found the second e-mail plausible, even just briefly, demonstrates how extreme the events of the days between the two e-mails were. Having seen a series of ridiculous events, I was prepared to accept the absurd as truth.

Often, in the modern world of political correctness, care for freedom of speech is thrown aside in an effort to make everyone feel happy and comfortable. In this case, the issue that worries me is not sexism, but limited speech.

This is not to condone DKE’s chant. It’s completely reasonable to call it tasteless. It’s completely reasonable to ostracize those who orchestrated it. But it is not reasonable to take administrative action against DKE, or even to call the chant “an active call for sexual violence,” as the Women’s Center initially did.

DKE has every right to say what they will. It is good for DKE to offend, and it is good for the offended to criticize them.

But when that criticism is virulent, making the chanters out to be as bad as the terrorists they criticized, it loses its credibility, as the News explained in a well-reasoned, thoughtful editorial Monday. In the hyper-sensitive world in which we live, such an editorial was courageous.

Far worse than the chant or the response, though, was the News’ “Editors’ Note” Tuesday. The note desperately hedged the previous editorial. The editorial had received criticism, and the News ran away from it.

A newspaper’s job is to report the truth, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. This paper did just that, initially. It covered the story of the chant, and its editorial pointed out that the all-too-haughty Women’s Center might be wrong too.

The effort to rescind that editorial can only be seen as an act of cowardice. God forbid that someone should be offended; the News had to clear matters up and assure the world that it, too, loves everyone who cries for social justice. Unfortunately, “social justice” has become an untouchable catchphrase, under whose protection a political agenda can crowd out any potential opposition.

As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” When people invoke the current mutated form of social justice found in the most extreme pockets of society, all other views become unacceptable and are chased away by fear, thus eliminating this competition of the market.

Social justice, taken to mean only what those words indicate, is, of course, an admirable goal. I’m all for equality, respect and freedom. But when the phrase and the sentiments behind it are used to disguise a crusade against anything that may offend some people, it becomes as dangerous as its enemies.

When DKE is tarred with the label of sexism, people become afraid to speak in opposition to the Women’s Center and its counterparts, lest they be labeled sexist, racist or homophobic. Unfortunately, the crusade beat the News this week too.

Newspapers should be a forum of discussion; more than perhaps any other venue, a newspaper is the site of Holmes’ marketplace of ideas. (The only possible challenger for that title, incidentally, is a university.) When that place becomes infected with fear, the contagion blocks ideas, and jokes, from entering the marketplace. Barred from the mainstream, potentially offensive ideas are forced underground and become ever more radical.

When one doctrine crowds out all others, when there is no interchange of ideas — even if those ideas may offend someone — society cannot arrive at a moderate truth. And when the truth is lost, we can confuse jokes and earnest pleas. Here’s to hoping that, in the future, all voices will be heard, and that I’ll be able to tell the pundits from the Pundits.

Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

Comments