Free speech includes ideas you don’t like, too
My first year of college was spent across town, at Hampshire College. After growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, never having heard the term “hipster” in my life, you can imagine the extent of my culture shock. I went into freshman year considering myself an extremely progressive liberal,, but by the time I dropped out at the end of the year, I realized just how traditional and conservative I was in many respects.
By enrolling myself in one of the most seemingly radical schools in the nation, I saw in an exaggerated microcosm the way political viewpoints tend to isolate themselves from opposing ideologies. This process tends to create a positive feedback loop where people only interact with politically like-minded others and can encourage each other into a fever pitch of radicalism that is far removed from the common-sense wisdom of the more traditional culture at large.
The thing I love about UMass is that one can find people from every cultural and political persuasion; this diversity of outlook keeps debate lively, and because so many students here pay their own way or are from lower and middle class backgrounds, arguments are rooted in practical experience. It is for this reason that I am a bit puzzled, and frankly dismayed, upon reading a Daily Collegian article about the actions of the Occupy and labor studies activists at a lecture on the merits of free capitalism last week.
From what I could gather from the article, activists went in with a predetermined goal to present their dissatisfaction with the basic tenets of the lecture. This in itself seems fair and reasonable – to symbolically show an opposition to the ideas presented. But the activists went further, disrupting the speaker and monopolizing the question-and-answer session with, as the Daily Collegian reported, “long-winded soliloquys.” What could have been an opportunity for lively debate about the relative merits of competing philosophies instead denigrated into divisiveness and bile. What got lost, in the process, was that both groups share the same goal of general economic prosperity.
Where can the cool-headed debate between opposing ideologies take place, if not in the halls of higher education? Harrison Searles, quoted in the article, was right when he said “the point of the University is the open sharing of ideas.” Occupy activists need to remember that achieving their avowed goal of economic justice cannot happen outside of the democratic process. The foundational principle of a democratic society is allowing opposing viewpoints to be expressed, even those you find distasteful. Nelson Klein justified the disruption of free speech because it “… was not in the interest of our school.” It is not for one person, or even a large group, to decide the “interest” of a public school and silence opposing conceptions. The true “interests” of a public school are the ideals of a democratic society that apply without prejudice to everyone: free speech, individual liberties and academic freedom. It is all the more shameful that such overtly confrontational tactics were used in a collegiate setting.
Lest anyone dismiss my point right off the bat, I find it important to point out that I’m not a Republican, nor an Objectivist. Like any ideology is bound to be, I find these viewpoints at times hypocritical and inconsistent. But I’m not about to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Members of both of these groups are at times among the most vocal supporters of civil liberties. Approaching their views with hostile prejudice will preclude gleaning any kind of wisdom, however small, from their lectures. It would be so much more productive to challenge inconsistencies in their ideas, sharpening one’s rhetorical powers in the process, instead of shouting down a speaker giving a free lecture to the public. A glance at the Facebook page of the New England Objectivist Society shows how this has created a bitter and hostile attitude, in turn, towards the Occupy protesters. These groups, sharing the same goal of economic prosperity, should be finding common ground and working together to remove the influence of powerful financial interests from the governmental process.
It is patently wrong for Occupy protesters, who object to the phony capitalism of Wall Street, to take out their anger on a small college group whose economic ideal is economic freedom. The thriving small businesses and the strong local communities this would support is the very opposite of Wall Street. But then, if they had listened to the lecture instead of shouting it down, perhaps they would know that.
Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.