Free Speech Still in Student Body’s Best Interest

Aaron Pressman, Columnist

On Dec. 4, College junior Jasper Clarkberg wrote a response titled “Non-Black Allies Must Engage With Protest Critics” to my Nov. 6 column in the Review, “Discouraging Dissent Stifles Intellectual Growth.” I appreciate Clarkberg taking the time to respond to such an important issue and would like to rebut some of his concerns.

First off, Clarkberg makes the argument that “nobody is punishing dissenters legally, financially or academically,” and that “Obies are not responsible for actively engaging with minority opinions.” While I concede that the administration does not usually punish dissenters for protected speech, my argument has nothing to do with legal protections and everything to do with effective education, morality and the best way to create real change. Obies are certainly not legally responsible for engaging with dissent. That would be not only unproductive, but also a serious violation of individual liberties. However, students are educationally responsible for engaging with minority opinions; humans are morally responsible for tolerating and respecting dissent and activists are tactically responsible for engaging with dissent. I elaborate on these arguments with more detail and examples in my original piece.

Clarkberg’s second rebuttal is specifically about the issue of racist opinions. He writes, “If Oberlin’s campus seems unwelcoming to racist opinions, that’s good for a campus that claims to be inclusive for minority racial and ethnic groups.”

This is not a rebuttal to my argument but merely a straw man. I very clearly outline two separate categories of protected speech. While both types should be legally protected, I am not expecting students to engage with off-the-wall racist speech that is widely viewed as offensive and lacks any educational value. An individual saying that whites are the superior race would be an example of this. While this type of speech must be legally protected, I am not expecting anyone to engage with or even respect this type of speech.

Instead, I ask Oberlin students to engage with or tolerate the more common form of speech that is not widely considered racist, even if it may be viewed as racist or offensive by some people at this school. An example I cite in my previous article is an individual who does not support the Black Lives Matter movement. While I would vehemently challenge anyone who makes the argument that there is no racism in policing in the United States, students should not attack individuals who hold this belief personally or refuse to engage them in conversation. Instead, they can engage the speaker and try to hold an intellectual discussion or change their viewpoint.

I think Clarkberg is very wrong when he claims the language I used in my original piece — “students dismiss[ing] dissenting views as ‘violent’ so as to avoid having to acknowledge their existence” — is the same thing as simply disagreeing. Students may disagree with many mainstream opinions, and there are many mainstream beliefs I find to be racist or hateful. However, refusing to tolerate the existence of these opinions benefits no one. Fruitful discourse is a much more productive solution than running for a safe space.

Clarkberg’s next argument is that leftist students at Oberlin are often the minority in other places and thus experience this same peer censorship elsewhere. “While it may seem like the radical left is the norm at Oberlin, many leftist students have had the experience of being shut down and disrespected for their beliefs outside of Oberlin,” he writes.

These are my favorite 32 words from Clarkberg’s article, and I want to thank him for outlining the crux of my argument in such a succinct way. I like this sentence so much that I probably should have included something along these lines in my original piece. For the very reason Clarkberg outlines, radically leftist Oberlin students should understand why respecting the opinions of others is so important. They should understand why peer censorship is terrible for society because they have presumably been on the other side of it. Clarkberg is right when he says, “this isn’t simply a partisan issue.” Currently, the left seems to be responsible for most of the ostracizing of opposition on college campuses. Of course, in many parts of the country — particularly outside the realm of colleges — the right is guiltier of shutting out and excluding opposing views. If so many leftist students have had “the experience of being shut down and disrespected for their beliefs outside of Oberlin” and presumably did not like it, why do the same to dissenters when on campus?

At least when being shut down at the Thanksgiving dinner table — an example Clarkberg cites — education and tolerance of others’ opinions are not part of the mission of the Thanksgiving meal. At Oberlin, the radical left is actually shutting down one of the primary purposes of this very institution. It almost seems like Clarkberg is arguing that because life is unfair outside of Oberlin, we should make it even more unfair at Oberlin; this seems to be exactly what many students have done. This is a very naïve approach that has no place in an institution of higher learning.

Finally, Clarkberg reverses his stance mid-article and claims that my argument actually is valid but not for minorities. “I think his complaint could be specifically applied to allies. In terms of racial justice, it is the job of white and non-Black allies to educate and win over their white peers.”

While this is a contradiction to all of his other arguments, I do appreciate that he at least finds my argument applicable to some members of the campus community. I suppose having some of the student body participate in discourse is better than none.

However, only expecting whites to participate in conversation is a terrible idea that only exacerbates an already-existing racial power disparity. I am very surprised that Clarkberg, who frames most of his argument in the context of racial justice, would want whites to continue to speak out more than minority communities and would encourage a campus culture in which most of the educational conversation occurs between whites.

While I believe Clarkberg’s intentions are good, and I appreciate that he at least believes that marginalized people should have a “space to express themselves on their own terms,” holding whites to a higher standard of discourse, thus creating a system where whites receive a more well-rounded education, is a huge step backward for civil rights.

Clarkberg further contradicts himself when he quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then, two sentences later, argues that white students should be the only ones expected to get involved with debate. Dr. King was very adamant about taking action and fighting against oppression, and Clarkberg is completely misrepresenting a great civil rights leader.

Free speech and fruitful discourse will always be the most productive way to learn and create change. Hiding from scary ideas or asking whites to act as spokespeople for minorities only makes problems worse.