Worden in response to “What we lack”

Letter to the editor

To the editor,

I’d like to preface my letter to the editor by stating that I am friends with both Andrew Breland and Jacob Martin, and that I respect their commitment to pressing the envelope on a number of issues. Even if I may not agree with them on a variety of issues, especially as of late, usually I am genuinely happy to see unconventional arguments put forth to our college campus because of the dialogue that they often spark.

However, as I will explain, a diversity of viewpoints is not always beneficial—particularly when certain viewpoints ultimately undermine the very “marketplace of ideas” they are purported to contribute to and/or represent. Thus, despite my friendship with the authors of “What we lack,” one thing needs to be understood: in this letter, I will not mince words. The arguments expressed in their opinion piece are both wrong and dangerous, and I feel that allowing their opinions to go unchallenged is worthy of equal criticism.

The crux of Breland and Martin’s piece is captured in the following quote: “There is no such thing as an unallowable view on a college campus.” Accordingly, the notion that the administration of a college or university can make its students face disciplinary action for the mere expression of their ideas, in their view, is simply wrong (no matter how terrible the ideas may be). Specifically, they propose two types of arguments: ethical and legal. I’ll critique the ethical argument first, then move on to the legal.

Breland and Martin assert that a college or university which imposes restrictions and/or punishments on the expression of ideas is unethical insofar as it undermines one’s education. The following excerpt highlights their reasoning:

“Whether from different academic or cultural background or individual life experience, varied opinions exist on and off the CWRU campus. Viewpoint diversity is always a good thing, and on a college campus, viewpoint diversity and speech to express such viewpoints are among the most hallowed of liberties.

The greater exposure one has to different opinions and viewpoints, the better off they are intellectually. True intellectual growth cannot occur without a strong presence of difference, so quelching speech and seeking to eradicate viewpoint diversity leads to close-mindedness.”

Forgive me, but I just have to wonder how much “better off” the black student’s intellect (or any student’s, for that matter) is when he or she encounters a noose hanging from a tree on his or her college campus. I also wonder how its intellectual benefit compares to that of everyone’s recent favorite chant, “You can hang him to a tree, but he’ll never sign with me! There will never be a nigger in SAE!” It really is such a unique expression of one’s “diverse” viewpoints—racist hatred, that is. I have to say, its expression truly epitomizes one our “most hallowed of liberties,” and prohibiting the restriction of these stellar examples of “viewpoint diversity” only helps to ensure that we will never fall into collective “close-mindedness.” Yes, the authors’ argument is quite compelling.

Forgive my sarcasm.

On a less sarcastic but equally serious note, racist viewpoints are as good to the intellectual state of one’s mind as rat poison is to the health of one’s physical body. The ideas which motivate racist thoughts and actions are not genuine ideas deserving of any intellectual merit. In actuality, these “ideas” are, at best, poisonous delusions which are devoid of even a mere semblance of logical reasoning or justifiable value.

In professing the moral righteousness in one’s ability to freely express such toxic delusions without repercussions, Breland and Martin are unknowingly corroding the very pillars of education they purport to champion. For how is the quality of one’s education not debased when the collegiate institutions hold beliefs which are undeniably evil and false to the same standard as those which are not? What good is there in suggesting that which is inherently negative in value possesses a positive value? What is the value that a cancer brings to biological diversity, I wonder?

To suggest that something is good without qualification for one’s education solely because it is “different” (the authors’ definition of diversity, at least for the purposes of their piece) is absolutely absurd. To even entertain the possibility that expressions of racism might possess some inherent intellectual value defies all reason. Thus, the administration of a college or university has no ethical obligation to protect those heinous manifestations of speech or expression.

I will now critique the legal argument.

Breland and Martin assert that a college or university which imposes restrictions and/or punishments on the expression of ideas is illegal insofar as it violates the First Amendment. They cite a 1973 Supreme Court case to give this assertion credibility:

“In 1973, the United States Supreme Court held that “mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name of ‘conventions of decency.’” This mentality applies to private colleges, as long as the school promises students and faculty free speech rights—as the vast majority of them do.”

To this assertion, I have but one simple question: to what extent are a person’s rights (not only relating to speech) safeguarded by our Constitution?

Here is the answer in its simplest form: to the extent that another person’s rights are not disenfranchised. There may be laws on our books today which are in place for other reasons, but I am talking about the Constitution itself and what it—in spirit, anyway—is meant to guarantee. It is on this basis that I cannot smoke cigarettes in some areas; it is on this basis that I cannot drive a car that is dirt-cheap, but will have a 99 percent chance of exploding on any impact above five miles per hour; and it is on this basis that one’s religious freedom should not entitle him or her to discrimination based on sexual orientation (a realization that will come soon for the Supreme Court, I am certain).

Similarly, we have the First Amendment to protect any law from abridging the freedom of speech, but how much freedom does one have with his or her speech to begin with? Are either of you in favor of giving people the right to cause psychological harm with one’s freedom of speech/expression? It may be a rarity, but it is surely a possibility; particularly with groups of people that are already exposed to traumatic events (e.g. veterans of war, survivors of rape, victims of severe discrimination and so forth).

Fortunately, tort law does encompass emotional distress, meaning it is lawful for a court to punish people for inflicting psychological/emotional damage on others. There are four elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as defined by the Cornell University Law School’s online database:

“The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress has four elements: (1) the defendant must act intentionally or recklessly; (2) the defendant’s conduct must be extreme and outrageous; and (3) the conduct must be the cause (4) of severe emotional distress.”

It is my view that this aspect of tort law is central to any argument in support of disciplining the expression of certain ideas on a college campus. As an example, consider Duke University’s decision to punish the student that hung a noose from a tree. Can one successfully argue that all four elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress were satisfied in this instance? To be honest, I don’t know. Fortunately, I don’t need to know. I am considering the legal powers a collegiate administration holds, not the specifics of any individual case. Therefore, the relevant question to ask is whether it is plausible to suppose such an extreme expression of one’s beliefs could cause emotional distress that would affect the college students’ way of life. Is it plausible that hanging a noose on a tree would present a high risk of inflicting emotional distress to a number of students?

You’re damn right it’s plausible.

A college or university absolutely has the right to provide a safe learning environment for its students. Protecting said students from an environment with a high risk of psychological harm or distress is clearly a part of that safety. In fact, it is the administration’s responsibility to do so.

Let me be clear. We’re not simply talking about some person’s feelings being hurt here; we’re talking about deep emotional distress which can cause severe anxiety, insecurity and a plethora of other psychological problems with very real impacts on the daily lives of those they afflict. But perhaps you’re still not convinced. Maybe you’re simply too desensitized to the racist intimidation that happens across our country, to predominantly black individuals, to feel that this is a compelling argument. I understand. Let’s consider a scenario that is less likely to occur in our country, but equally abhorrent.

How do you think a Jewish student attending CWRU would feel if he or she walked outside to discover swastikas chalked all over parts of our campus, in addition to being distributed in fliers and table tents in other locations? Written in other areas are grotesque exclamations, such as “JEWS DESERVE TO DIE,” or “REINSTATE THE HOLOCAUST.” The student goes to Yik Yak and quickly finds a number of people sympathetic with these “ideas.” How long do you think it would take for this hypothetical Jewish student to experience a sense of terror and a very imminent threat to his or her well-being?

Half a second?

A second?

If this type of expression was allowed to continue, even begrudgingly, then how long do you think it would take for all of the fear to affect this hypothetical Jewish student’s daily life? Perhaps he or she shouldn’t go to as many public places? Certainly no going out late at night, especially to parties; who knows what could happen when the people spouting this hatred in private are intoxicated and potentially in the same vicinity as a Jewish person? Oh darn, looks like there’s nothing we can do about it. At least the student has more time to focus on schoolwork, I suppose. The psychological stress of living on a campus with people who willingly express the idea that the student is inferior and should die certainly won’t affect his or her quality of studying, sleep or life in general. Nah, that’d be insane; then we’d have to actually do something about the swastikas. Can you imagine? They’re just so thought-provoking. My intellect has never been so stimulated by this fantastic diversity of completely valid viewpoints.

I’m not even going to ask for a half-hearted apology for my sarcasm that time.

A college or university is meant to foster students’ education in an environment where they can feel safe. Since it is conceivable that extreme acts of discrimination or ill-will towards a specific group of people (especially any minority) could be counterproductive to the safety of one’s learning environment (and actually limit the discriminated group’s speech in the process), the institution is well within its rights to impose strict limits. Obviously the specifics of the limits can be discussed, but it seems a “reasonable person test” is a good starting point. Furthermore, it may also be wise for the standard to be limited to beliefs which devalue an aspect of humanity itself, rather than any incorrect ideas in general. It’s one thing to say absurd claims about mathematical facts or the rules of the English language; it is quite another to assert the white race is superior to the black race in an objective way.

But again, the specifics can be sorted out at another time. I simply wanted to show how restrictions or disciplinary punishments to the expression of some ideas are conceivably justifiable on a legal ground, at least as they pertain to the setting of the college campus.

In closing, I’d like to make a few more remarks.

It is not an exaggeration to label Breland and Martin’s mentality in “What we lack” as tragic. This statement, of course, applies to everyone else who might agree with them. For what is more tragic than the minds of the good-hearted becoming deluded into not only disregarding instances of evil, but actually perpetuating it further by accepting the systemic conditions which safeguard its presence and propagation? One expects evil people to do evil; one laments when the good people inadvertently do the same. At the very least, I know neither Breland nor Martin harbor evil intentions, and this is why I find the situation tragic. I hope the forcefulness of my letter will shock them into re-evaluating their current positions on the subject.

My forcefulness serves a much more important purpose, though. When dealing with any poisonous and dangerous ideas, one’s goal should be nothing short of their complete and utter invalidation. They cannot simply be revoked, ignored or passively accepted as an equally valid point of view. Rather, they must be expediently exposed as demonstrably false in a way so compelling that the fact of the matter cannot be logically ignored, even by their most ardent supporters. Doing anything less fosters the potential for the distorted viewpoints to gain legitimacy in public and private forums, and there is nothing more dangerous than the perceived legitimacy of falsities as truths.

I hope I have accomplished the invalidation I just described.

Now there’s one final thing left.

Andrew, I recently saw that you were admitted to law school at New York University and plan to attend. Congratulations, I knew you were going high places from the moment I met you (I truly mean that, and in a very positive way). The question I have for you to mull over throughout your schooling is what side will you stand on when the time comes for you to actually practice law? Not only on this issue, but a number of others? It will no longer be a game, you know.

I predict you will eventually hold a significant amount of power—whether in law, politics or some other sphere of influence. When the time comes, I hope you choose wisely, and I hope that my conscience will allow me to support you.

Colin Worden