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

  • Disappointed

    Wow. Really? This piece is so bizaare and poorly reasoned that I barely know what to say, but would like to throw out a couple quick points.

    I don’t know what about the editorial you are defending was ‘courageous’, nor did it provide any sort of reasoned debate or discussion about the incident. That you also choose to use name-calling (the “all too haughty Women’s Centre” – wait, did you actually call the Women’s Centre terrorists?!) without recognising why this is a problem speaks volumes about what constitutes this paper’s idea of good analysis. You suggest that “it is not reasonable to take administrative action against DKE”, but do not meaningfully say why. Why not? Just because they may have a right to say something does not render their exercise of that right infallible or unpunishable in any circumstance. Freedom of speech exercised in this manner in a work place would be grounds for firing. In that context it is called harassment. Were it in other personal contexts, similar behavior could be grounds for arrest – equally for harassment or uttering threats. How is it okay for a mob of boys to exercise their freedom of speech on a private university campus to create an unsafe and threatening environment for those who could reasonably be expected to react to the situation in that way? Were the boys to have shouted a racially threatening slogan in front of a building housing predominately people from the group they were demeaning, would it be equally unreasonable to take administrative action?
    By diverting the discussion in the way your paper has decided to, the actual actions of the DKE boys as well as their root and their harm have escaped meaningful scrutiny and analysis.

    You have tried to characterise people’s outrage to the actions of DKE and the paper’s defense of them through focusing blame on the Women’s Centre as “a crusade against anything that may offend some people.” This seems a greater overreaction than that of the Women’s Centre. Trying to ensure that women’s right to feel safe on campus and assert their right to personal agency is hardly a ‘crusade against anything that may offend some people’. To characterise the actions of DKE and the reaction of the Women’s Centre in this way is trivializing and absurd in the face of the objective, obvious, and deep nature of the offense. This occurred in a deep context of American history and culture, and in a real world. In the real world, we understand why the DKE boys’ actions are harmful, and why they are reprehensible. An overreaction from an advocacy group has peripheral relevance to that central fact, and wouldn’t change the obvious need to take action against the actual guilty party.

  • y10br

    Wow. This was somewhat idiotic. Not going to lie. Between the vague character attacks at the women’s center, the complete lack of structure, the unwillingness to expand on any position…

    And to be frank, if you don’t think what DKE did was at least sexist…jeesh. You really do want women to go back in the kitchen. I’m willing to say self-hate.

  • Summer

    It *would* be just like a **man** to write something like this…oh wait.

    With a single stroke, Ms. Fisher has managed to completely undermine the canard that the Yale Women’s Center speaks for all Yale Women. I thank her. Given the choice between Ms. Fisher and the YWC, I’d much rather have Julia Fisher speaking for me.

    By the way, this is **real** misogyny from a commenter – the type that says “you’re a woman so you can only have one opinion”:

    y10br:
    > And to be frank, if you don’t think what DKE did was at least sexist…jeesh. You really do want women to go back in the kitchen. I’m willing to say self-hate.

  • y10br

    No, I’d say the same thing about homosexuals that oppose gay marriage or hispanics that support the Republican Party. Self-hate of one’s identity and an unwillingness to defend that identity from attack is tied together, at least for me.

    And women are allowed a multitude of responses. But the idea that the DKE chant wasn’t sexist is so utterly sublimating that it just falls short of any possible response that doesn’t seem to be to deeper rejection of the part’s of one’s identity that are tied to inherent conditions.

  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    So… it is impossible in y10br’s world for a homosexual to understand the conservative view on marriage? And any homosexual not supporting gay marriage must be expressing self-loathing? (And I simply *must* assume that stating that any Hispanic that does not adhere to y10br’s conception of political identification is an attempt at humor. No, really, I must. I love how y10br is the arbiter, the “identifier” of *others’* identities!)

    > And women are allowed a multitude of
    > responses.

    Does anyone else find this incredibly condescending? Exactly **who** does this “allowing”? That is, who decides/delineates/”allows” the appropriate/right/correct responses? A committee? The Woe Center? ybr10? What if the “response” is outside of those that have been “allowed” (as is clearly the case here)? Sexist much?

    What. A. Bigot. (And I am not even kidding this time.)

    Ms. Fisher, on the other hand, seems to have a balanced head on her shoulders. Not saying I agree with everything she has written, just the flexible, tolerant, and patient mind underpinning her words.

    Here, let me re-apply a comment from the firestorm over Juan Williams’ firing: **”Those who support *actual* tolerance and open dialogue would not attempt to suppress it or punish it when it occurs. “**
    (Of course, Juan Williams probably meets ybr10′s threshold of self-hate, eh?)

    A quote on why Williams was fired (and why some are sure to be incensed by Ms Fisher’s comments): [Juan Williams came too close to understanding ideas he was supposed to hate. The Left is deathly afraid of what happens when its constituents begin to understand the Right.][1]

    > And women are allowed a multitude of
    > responses.

    Not by ybr10, they’re not!

    [1]: http://hotair.com/greenroom/archives/2010/10/22/juan-williams-and-the-preference-cascade/

  • Branford73

    Ms. Fisher, I am willing to agree that official university discipline against the perpetrators of this chant stunt should be avoided in favor of free speech values. But free speech should carry some responsibility with it. The university and the DKE leadership should release the names of the chanters and the pledge activity organizers to YDN. If the News won’t print them, then the university should should release the names in a campus wide email. If ostracism is the reasonable price of misdeed of speech, let the ostracism be personal to those who uttered the offensive speech. Since the chants were yelled in public these men cannot reasonably claim their identities are protected by a right to privacy.

  • Saybrook10

    “SY10,” (I don’t know who he is, but he’s another male in Saybrook College 2010–kudos) has written about this issue on some other postings, but people still don’t seem to be able to separate a few distinct issues. While the chant may not have been an “active call to sexual violence,” that does not immediately send it to the realm of “free speech.” As SY10 and others have pointed out, the speech may well fall under the category of sexual harassment, which is, in a workplace or learning environment, generally verbal, and while not against the law, is certainly a violation that is grounds for disciplinary action. Thus, ineffective as you may see it for both women and men on this campus to have miscategorized the activities of DKE at one end of the spectrum by overreacting, you seem to have miscategorized them at the other end by forgiving them under free speech. Finally, there is nothing inherently wrong with criticizing somebody’s “overreaction” to a wrong that has been committed, but I think you’re wrong on the point of the News’ arguments being well-reasoned and written in this criticism. True, they pointed out this initial miscategorization, but they almost completely failed to properly acknowledge the admirable tact and reservation with which outraged members of this community reacted in a trying time, and the arguments mostly alluded to *perceived* past transgressions (certainly a personal perception) on the part of the Women’s Center of Yale in quite flagrantly sexist terms, rather than the laudable current efforts they are putting forward.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.* [comfortable]

    Poliical Correctness is evolving into the new tyranny.
    PK

  • Branford73

    Just as apt a phrase from Finley Peter Dunne is this one:

    *You can lead a man up to the university, but you can’t make him think.*

  • Summer

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1024/exit-poll-analysis-hispanics

    Apparently at least 31% of Hispanics are self-hating

  • Summer

    > No, I’d say the same thing about homosexuals that oppose gay marriage or hispanics that support the Republican Party.

    And you’d probably call blacks who support the Republican Party “uncle Toms”.

    Disgusting.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ***Irony of ironies:***

    Uncle Tom in HBS’s novel enshrining his name, was practicing *satyagraha*, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent, passive resistance, which was later adopted by Martin Luther King a a powerfully effective political “weapon.”

    PK

  • DebbieDowner

    I think free speech is important in this economy.

  • PEA

    This editorial is just as poorly written as the editorial written by YDN on Monday.

    DKE has the right to free speech, and they exercised that right. As you note, it is appropriate for others to criticize their speech if they find it offensive. As the DKE boys chanted on campus, it is also appropriate for the administration to take action if the boys are found to have violated university rules. While a court case would never hold up, the administration has the right to regulate behavior on campus.

    You shy away from calling the DKE chants sexist, and note that “it is good for DKE to offend.” I am confused as to why you think that what the boys chanted was appropriate in any way. You go on to insult the Women’s Center and recoil at their characterization of the chant — but in what way is “no means yes, yes means anal” not literally a call to sexual violence?

    Years ago, the tennis team got in trouble for making anti-gay jokes. The coach and some of the players were suspended. The boys were confused — they didn’t understand in the least what was wrong with the jokes they made. While I don’t personally know the DKE boys, I suspect a similar issue is at hand — that they don’t understand what’s wrong with chanting what they did, or worse, they do understand, and said it anyway.

    Having trouble understanding why there’s an issue with DKE’s chants? I recommend checking out [Ivory Outrage][1], a blog written by an American Studies PhD at Yale. The blogger writes powerfully about the nature of the chants, the context in which they were said, and the controversy surrounding YDN and the Women’s Center.

    [1]: http://ivoryoutrage.blogspot.com/ “Ivory Outrage”

  • pablum

    This editorial is riddled with logical fallacies. The “political correctness” bogey man rears its head once again.

    Ms. Fisher could have simply written that, in the interests of free speech, the DKE members involved in this fiasco should not be censured (not the same thing as censored, as they were not, will not, and cannot be) by the University. Fair enough. That would have been a fine editorial — a principled political position to take. Then digging up the bones of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would have made sense.

    But the editorial didn’t end there. Ms. Fisher, in claiming to defend free speech, actually loathes speech that she deems “politically correct.” Labels like racist, sexist, homophobe, etc. cannot be used, even when they apply, because, apparently, they create a culture of sensitivity where people are afraid to speak their minds. That’s another argument, entirely unrelated to free speech. If people say stupid things, face opprobrium for saying stupid things, and then are embarrassed or shamed by it, then, well, that’s normal. There’s no doubt that these brothers of DKE said some embarrassingly stupid things, things that are unequivocally hateful towards women, and that they should be mocked, criticized, and ostracized for their terrible choice words. What Ms. Fisher suggests is a lame counterargument: she believes that people whom she sees as “politically correct” must show sensitivity towards those whom they view as “politically incorrect”; that, if we fail to nurture the feelings of the stupid, then the slightly less stupid might be afraid to speak. Poor them. Ms. Fisher’s solution to the culture of political correctness is political correctness towards the politically incorrect. It made my head spin, but at least she understands rhetoric enough to couch it within a much larger, and totally unrelated, argument about the right to free speech.

    So, I guess that Ms. Fisher thinks that we should all hug a bigot today. As President Obama recently said, “[Bigots], it gets better.” Let’s all take a step back and think about whose feelings we might be hurting when we appropriately label certain speech as sexist or just plain dumb.