The most recent issue of the Vassar Chronicle contains many well written articles, and, if you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, is certainly worth the time.
On my reading, one article in particular warranted a response.
“Legality and Morality Must Be Distinct” (The Vassar Chronicle, 11.11.15) highlights the genuine and relevant differences between legal rights and moral ones, but wrongly relates these concepts to campus climate all the while displaying a dangerous perception of the nature of free speech.
Let’s begin with what the article gets right. From the onset, Nichols focuses on the division between morality and legality.
Their example, divorce, fits neatly into this framework: “[divorce was] the reason that I heard, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, that divorce was not criminalized.”
Once again, when Nichols discusses guilt by association, their analysis of the situation is spot on.
How individuals look at a situation from a moral perspective greatly differs from the legal system’s take on that same circumstance.
Surely, there exists a distinction between what we as a society invoke as a legal definition and one which, depending on one’s moral inclination, we accept as a moral response.
But Nichols soon turns to free speech, and here the argument derails.
Nichols relies on the distinction between legality and morality and attempts to show that freedom of speech, while necessary to keep the state in check, holds no weight when viewed as personal right.
Nichols casts out assumptions we often make about freedom of speech—namely that it is inalienable and beneficial to open discussions—and refuses to connect freedom of speech to a personal sense of morality.
To defend their claims, Nichols states, “It is not a moral failing to reject, as a body, ideologies that have proven so harmful to many in our midst.
It is not a breach of ethics to refuse to entertain notions that are responsible for so much oppression in the world.”
I see no reason to disagree with Nichols here. No one is pushing for the exhalation of Nazism or Indonesian death squads; these thoughts are rightfully contradicted if and when they are expressed. Unfortunately, discourses on campus are rarely so polarized.
In unpacking any complex concept, it is imperative to listen to others. Refusing to entertain various viewpoints is wrong, perhaps not in a moral sense, but certainly in an intellectual and politically aware sense.
Neglecting to hear outside views of any kind on the ground that you feel no moral obligation to do so does not make for active or contributing members of a campus community.
It instead creates a climate of intolerance where the loudest voice drowns out all others.
When John Stuart Mill wrote “On Liberty” he provided a four-part defense of free speech.
His first principle is as follows: “…if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”
Mill furthers his opinion, stating, “…it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”
In other words, Mill champions open, active debate as the only way in which the truth may be uncovered.
By acting as a medium which permits necessary discussions to take place, free speech ensures that the truth will surface, so long as the involved parties agree to a degree of open-mindedness.
This was once the hallmark of a liberal arts curriculum; is it no longer?
Nichols, as Editor-in-Chief of the Vassar Chronicle, should see the merit in such a position. The role of a campus newspaper is to provide a voice for students, independent of message or prevailing discourse.
As editor, Nichols plays quite a large role in the selection of articles for publication and in setting the overall tone of the paper.
This is a position which must be compromised, considering Nichols’ message on censorship and free speech. The editor of an inclusive publication cannot justly argue against portraying differing points of view.
Nichols weakly defends this belief with the words, “Freedom of speech is not a reason why people should listen to you,” and is partly correct.
Sure, Vassar and other student bodies do not have to “unconditionally tolerate all speech.” But they must tolerate speech.
Contrary to Nichols’ position, free speech does, in fact, apply to campus culture, and in a big way.
Nichols, in their article, signs a blank check and says it is okay for us as students, citizens and intellectuals to act against academic curiosity and to opt out of dialogue aimed at uncovering truth.
This assumption is dangerous. Unfortunately, it appears prevalent on campuses these days.
Such is the case with the Wesleyan Argus. Where Nichols sees morality wrongly invoked, I see intolerance which frightens me to my core.
Certainly, we do well by addressing hate speech and doing all we can to be inclusive and welcoming.
But venture too far in censoring speech and in marginalizing outside perspectives, and we may never arrive at the truth of any matter. Nichols believes we are right (perhaps morally) in refusing to entertain ideas which may “destroy several of us.”
But I wonder, who are those several, and why are their feelings worth so much more than the benefits which arise from open and inclusive dialogue?
Have we truly arrived at a point in time where we refuse to listen to one another based on feelings?
These are questions which we, as a student body, must grapple with. The answers will not come easily and they will likely not be found in the prevailing views expressed on campus.
At such a time as this, we must brush up on our Mill and ponder the merits of free speech, not discredit it as a faulty moral assumption.
Without this, we will never arrive at the truth. But once we do, perhaps, some of us will find it to be a moral truth as well.
—Kyle Gray ’18 is a student at Vassar College.