Free Discourse and the Responsibility It Carries
Over a year ago, the Susquehanna community chose Conflict as the university theme for the 2017-18 academic year. Little did we know at the time how appropriate it would become.
Two weeks before classes began, conflict was all over the news as peaceful protests gave way to violence and death in Charlottesville, Va. Debates were reignited across the country about a longstanding question in democratic politics: When does free speech become a danger to a democratic polity? What do we do with the inevitable conflict between unfettered speech that is important to a healthy polity and the harm that may be done by some of that same language, precluding others from participating in the polity?
President Jonathan Green wasted no time in providing a venue for our students, faculty and staff to come together and discuss the issues at the heart of this debate. The President's Forum on Free Discourse in an Inclusive Community was held during the first week of classes, and the turnout of students, faculty and staff indicated that people were hungry for conversation.
The value of a liberal arts education in helping us process and find solutions to difficult problems was evident throughout the panel discussion that night. Composed of faculty from departments across campus, each provided a different way to look at these difficult questions. Comparative politics provided a lens into how other democracies manage these issues, and research in cultural anthropology provided a perspective on the challenges posed by language. The personal experiences presented through the art of creative writing put a very real face on the conflict, while the importance of carefully defining the term "hate speech" was presented and debated by several on the panel.
Do any of these views provide concrete answers to the challenging questions posed by free speech in a democracy? No, but they give us different perspectives to understand each other and a vocabulary with which to have these conversations. This is what a liberal arts education does.
The many questions and comments from students and the faculty's responses provided a first step in conversations that need to occur on our campus in the year to come. These conversations are not easy anywhere--and perhaps particularly not at Susquehanna, a place where we can be so nice and so conflict avoidant. But the reality is that it is much easier for some of us to avoid these conflicts than it is for others. This is one of the markers of privilege.
Those who are most likely to be targeted by such language can rarely avoid hearing and feeling the stings of language that excludes. If we really want to be the community we profess to be, we all need to engage in conversations that are difficult. Free speech is essential to our democracy and a hallmark of intellectual inquiry. It must be guarded carefully. However, freedom without a sense of responsibility, free speech without an awareness of the damage that words can cause, will not help us to achieve our goal of being "a learning community that values diversity."
I hope that many of us on campus will continue to meet throughout the rest of this year, in groups large and small, in an attempt to understand our differences and confront our conflicts in constructive ways, so that we may all be more prepared to live in the "diverse, dynamic and interdependent world" we talk about in our mission.
Michele DeMary, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and the prelaw program advisor.