Letter from the Editor: In defense of words, and concern for sticks and stones

Danny Fisher / Editor-in-Chief

Remember the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

It wasn’t just sticks and stones that killed more than 40 people in Beirut on Thursday, or more than 120 just the next day in Paris.  But it was violence that slaughtered almost 200 innocent men, women and children this week, and injured hundreds more.  It was actions taken by a terrorist organization bent on destroying those who do not conform to their beliefs and practices.

Only 14 years ago—within the lifetime of most college students—the same kind of intentional, hateful action was taken against the United States when the twin towers were destroyed.  Almost 3,000 people died that day in terrorists’ attack of freedom of speech, choice and religion.

Yet, on college campuses throughout America, students daily take for granted, and even try to restrict, those very rights so many have been murdered for possessing.  Young people band together to remove platforms for voices they disagree with, or to remove the voices themselves, especially in the name of creating a “safe space.”

Before Halloween at Yale University, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, master and associate master of one of the undergraduate schools, addressed students in an email, urging them to avoid potentially offensive costumes for the holiday.  They followed the caution with recognition that while people should be sensitive, it is their right to choose not to be, and students responded with outrage.  The professors were shouted at, protested against and they stepped down from their positions.

A similar rise in student action has been taking place at the University of Missouri, where anonymous acts of racist speech and expression inspired students to demand the resignation of Tim Wolfe, the Missouri system president.  Wolfe, and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, stepped down last week, unable to convince the student body that their efforts to censor speech were effective enough.

Some students and staff at Missouri even went so far as to prevent a student journalist from covering their protest, repeatedly laying hands on the man and pushing him back from the location, further limiting opportunity for freedom of speech.

Amherst University followed the trend this week, when some students demanded that the university issue a statement of intolerance for a flier campaign lamenting the first amendment as the true victim of the protests at Missouri.  Furthermore, the protesters, who have named themselves the Amherst Uprising, demand that the students behind the free speech campaign be subjected to racial and cultural “competency” training.

Institutions of higher learning have long been lauded as places where students may practice and benefit from freedom of speech.  People work to earn spots in universities where they may be exposed to new ideas, and where their ideas may be challenged.

And yet, modern students cower away from any dissent, any disagreement and any difference in opinion.  We beg the administration that is designed to strengthen us to now shelter us from the necessity to develop our thoughts and discover new ways to communicate, even at the expense of the first amendment.  Feeling “safe” from other peoples’ words is more important to us than anything.

The truth is, we aren’t safe, but it isn’t words that threaten us.  It’s the idea that the person who disagrees with us is unworthy of speech.  It’s the infectious concept that in order for one perspective to exist, all others must be eliminated.

We are unsafe because there are people who are so dedicated to eliminating freedom that they are willing to kill hundreds, or thousands, of innocent citizens and we aren’t even dedicated enough to freedom to allow people to speak their piece, even if it only hurts our feelings.

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1 Response

  1. Jon Quiñones says:

    I don’t know that these massive terrorist attacks were the best comparison for the message of this article. However, I do feel that people can sometimes be intolerant of opposing views while at the same time claiming to be liberal or open-minded. It bothers me that this has begun to affect comedy as well.

    Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock refuse to perform on college campuses because of the fixation on political correctness and sensitivity. There are some areas of life where sensitivity to others is important, but comedy is not one. Higher Education is meant to challenge our preconceived notions and learn about different views. We can’t turn a blind eye to, or silence opposition simply because we don’t like it or it makes us angry. If anything, being open to listening can make you better at refuting that line of thinking.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but this is exactly why philosophy is so important. It teaches us how to properly debate and ponder ideas whether or not they are offensive.

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