A few weeks ago, in response to a campus-wide uproar regarding the ICE agent costumes donned by three Rice University students, I decided to write an op-ed in The Rice Thresher calling for are turn to Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” and a revitalization of classical liberalism. In it, I asserted that, while we should not “actively wish fear or pain” on others, we must also be “cognizant of the fact that a world without fear or pain is a world without liberty” and that “such a world is antithetical to every fundamental American value that makes this country the ‘shining
city’ that it is.” After substantiating my argument with the words of everyone from John Locke to Milton Friedman to John F. Kennedy, I concluded the piece by urging my peers to resist the “inclination to react punitively” and to instead “use the intellectual acumen that we all possess as Rice students to settle our disagreements in an open marketplace of ideas.”
At the time, I did not realize the full extent of the social repercussions that would follow. The morning after publication, I experienced the first wave of slanderous comments. My article was shared to Facebook by a few students, and accusations of racism immediately started to pour in. One respondent went so far as to insinuate that I was a Nazi sympathizer, and another charged me with a desire to return to the 1600s.
Throughout the day, as more and more people reposted my article, the comments began to pile up. A few days later, the Thresher reposted the article to its own Facebook page, which solicited even more comments. All in all, my article accumulated hundreds of comments across various different Facebook pages. Said comments ranged from designating me a bigot to claiming that I “only [cite] dead white men” (despite the fact that I referenced both Thomas Sowell and Barack Obama) to simply proclaiming that I was unintelligent or ignorant. Meanwhile, the backlash on campus has become so severe and so widespread that I can’t go to parties or other social gatherings without being recognized as “the [expletive] who wrote the op-ed.”
However, the most troubling of all the responses actually comes from those who are supportive of my message. I have had countless people approach me to tell me how “brave” I was for writing an op-ed of this nature and to offer solidarity in the face of the overwhelming negativity. These comments don’t trouble me per se, but the underlying implications point to a pernicious trend. The fact that I am considered “brave” simply for expressing an unpopular opinion points to the core issue that my original op-ed sought to address. Though compelling speech through the use of social disapprobation is not as egregious as doing so by way of codified law, it nonetheless constitutes a potentially perilous restriction on the marketplace of ideas. When the threat of ostracization and collective outrage is used as a means of dissuading others from expressing divergent views, the marketplace of ideas ceases to function.
Even as an ardent free speech advocate, I concede that there are limits to what qualifies as legitimate speech. What I take issue with is not the existence of these limits but how liberally they are invoked. Obviously, there is some speech that is so repugnant that the use of social odium as a deterrent for future instances of such speech is not only acceptable but absolutely necessary. For example, blatantly discriminatory or malicious speech — including the use of or allusion to racial epithets, fear-mongering, and violent incitements — does not contribute anything to the marketplace of ideas and therefore doesn’t warrant protection from social disapprobation.
That being said, there is no plausible justification for the idea that my op-ed displayed any form of overt discrimination. Admittedly, there is a valid argument to be made that the doctrine of classical liberalism contains racial undertones, and I would be happy to entertain such discussions. However, perceived racial undertones do not rise to the standard of illegitimate speech. Adherence to the principle of free speech precludes shouting down ideas that could be construed as problematic but possess no inherent problem. Progress manifests itself through open and honest dialogue, not through name-calling and vilification. Insofar as an idea is not overtly discriminatory or espoused for the express purpose of inciting violence, I contend that it should be permitted to enter the marketplace of ideas without the threat of social disapprobation.
The question of where exactly we choose to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate speech is entirely subjective, but I would argue that the Rice community’s response to what was an incontrovertibly objective and fact-based op-ed indicates that we need to recalibrate its placement.
I am writing this follow-up not because I seek any sort of redress but, rather, because I wish to convey a personal epiphany engendered by this experience: civil discourse on college campuses is dying. Though this proposition may sound bleak, I am optimistic that there is, in fact, a way to rectify this rampant crisis. Ironically, I believe the solution lies in the core tenets of classical liberalism. The vitriol that I have received both online and in-person over the past few weeks demonstrates precisely the issue that I sought to address in my original article. Free speech, by its very nature, is bound to pose problems, especially in situations where the prevailing opinion is being impugned; however, the beauty of free speech lies in its ability to serve as the antidote to the exact problems that it produces.
That’s why I wrote the op-ed.
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