Columns, Opinions

Aman ’20: What constitutes acceptable discourse?

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 13, 2018

I think most Brown students agree that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, not everyone is entitled to a platform to present those opinions; when we create space for certain people and groups to speak, we implicitly give their ideas some minimum level of legitimacy. To be clear, by inviting someone to speak, we are not necessarily endorsing their ideas or agreeing with them, but we are agreeing that they have something of value to say. Therefore, like many on this campus, I believe that Brown should not invite trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, or white supremacist “academics” like Charles Murray to speak, as their opinions are truly abhorrent. Yet we absolutely cannot apply this argument blindly to everyone we disagree with, and instead must foster a healthy and robust debate about where we draw the line on acceptable discourse.

Last Friday, The Herald published an op-ed by Michael Froid ’21 arguing that Jeb Bush’s opinions were so out of line, so indefensible, that he does not deserve a platform to speak at Brown. In response, Mark Liang ’19 wrote a column published last Monday, arguing that as a major presidential candidate, Jeb Bush is well within the lines of mainstream American discourse, and his views, though not popular at Brown, are widely shared throughout America. At the end of the day, completely dismissing Bush’s views as unworthy of discussion, as outside the realm of debate, weakens our education and undermines our ability to effect positive change in the world.

Of course, deciding which individuals are worthy of speaking at Brown is not always an easy, clear-cut exercise. For example, what if President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence were invited to speak at Brown? I don’t have an immediate answer. As such, I would like to start a discussion and begin to build a framework to help us, as a community, determine the parameters of acceptable discourse. To do so, we must answer two fundamental questions: What value does a potential speaker bring to the table, and how should our community’s values inform the sorts of views we seek out?

To answer the first question, we must consider why we invite guest speakers in the first place. Essentially, how can guest speakers contribute to our education? Generally, guest speakers are able to share personal experiences and new perspectives that we cannot readily find in the library, on the internet or from our professors. This includes visiting professors presenting fresh research and new ideas, professionals at the top of their fields or those with unusual professional and life experiences — like running for president. Froid maintained that Bush doesn’t have anything valuable to say, as “Someone who will mislead the public about the facts surrounding the climate … should not be treated as a credible source of information on other subjects either.” While speakers should ideally have an understanding of basic facts, this isn’t actually a prerequisite. Instead, we must consider what speakers can teach us that we won’t easily find somewhere else at Brown.

Secondly, we must consider how our University’s values should influence the types of speakers we choose to host. To be clear, by “University’s values” I do not mean values that the majority of people at Brown share. Instead, these are values that Brown has developed over time as a community — that we, as students, accepted when we decided to come here. The University’s primary objective, as articulated in its mission statement, “is to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.” Further evidence of Brown’s values can be found within the University’s Liberal Learning goals, which include concrete skills like speaking, writing and scientific inquiry, as well as more abstract goals like embracing diversity and engaging with our communities.

The University’s goals and values aren’t exclusive to one political party or ideology, and if we decide they are, we are severely limiting our education. Inherent to the values held by the University are respect and empathy — the belief that, while there is no room for hateful ideas on this campus, we have a responsibility to listen to others and engage with the world around us. If our goal is ultimately to “serve the community, the nation and the world,” we must understand and ultimately be able to work with people who hold opinions and viewpoints drastically different from our own. Therefore, exposure to a vast array of perspectives is a crucial aspect of an effective education, even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable. Already, Brown tends to present primarily liberal ideas: A recent study by the SPEAK student coalition revealed that 94.5 percent of hosted speakers at Brown lean left. And while we should absolutely think critically about whose views we legitimize when inviting guest speakers, if we dismiss mainstream views on the right as completely unjustifiable and illegitimate, we are further distancing our education from reality.

When done right, inviting a diverse selection of guest speakers to campus has the potential to add significant value to our education. Yet the current firestorm surrounding Bush’s impending speech has exposed a lack of clear and accepted standards for inviting speakers to Brown. Going forward, we must continue to have deliberate, honest and inclusive conversations to further clarify our University’s values and how guest speakers can contribute to our education.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.