Rethinking campus controversy

How obsession with arguing the boundaries of free speech has damaged effective debate

Nowadays, it seems as if there’s a ritual to campus debate surrounding highly controversial issues.

Typically, the students most affected by an issue voice their outrage, confusion and displeasure. They demand action from their university’s administrators and push to educate the less informed. Then, an opposing force of equally-affected students emerges and the issue gets disassembled, argued from different angles and sometimes demonstrations are held.

However, the topic of conversation at some point inevitably shifts from the underlying matter to the ways in which the issue implicates the boundaries of free speech.

For example, consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it’s argued every year on campus. A spin-off of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Israel movement (BDS) constructs a mock checkpoint at a major campus intersection. Israel on Campus (IOC) labels the demonstration as being anti-Semitic. The debate surrounding this globally significant issue is reduced to a single question: are mock checkpoints and other highly controversial demonstrations healthy expressions of free speech, or are they hate-fueled attempts at marginalizing a group of students on campus?

Due to this shift, the question is no longer relevant to the underlying issue and the debate’s focus has become campus-level policy, rather than one which looks globally.

The conversation surrounding the ethics of legal abortion, another issue that’s often polarizing, is treated the same way on campus. An article published by The Journal in 2016 titled, “Queen’s Alive has no place on campus,” illustrates this phenomenon beautifully. This is because the article tails off with, “a discussion needs to happen on the limits of free speech.”

But will discussing the limits of free speech really progress our knowledge on the morals and science behind the termination of human pregnancy? The Journal has published plenty of writing on this topic, including articles like, “Pro-life has a right to function” and “Examining Queen’s Alive’s right to live,” but as their titles suggest, they include nearly no discussion of abortion. This begs me to ask again, why are we reducing widely important issues down to matters of personal offense, micro-aggression and free speech?

This isn’t an issue unique to our campus. Nearly every few weeks, the very presence of an alt-right or ultra-Conservative speaker is protested at an American college. Take, for example, the protest that took place after a speech from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at the University of California at Berkley. In this case and in most others, the campus debate focused on whether the speaker violated the safe space of some portion of the University’s student body, or if they remained within the explicit or implicit boundaries of the institution’s free speech policy.

Simply put, using the free speech debate as a proxy for more important underlying issues is lazy. It restricts the potential outcomes of healthy debate and discussion to the boundaries of a university campus.

Perhaps students are approaching debate and discussion in this peculiar fashion because of the bizarre American election they recently witnessed. There was a noticeable lack of substance in the presidential debates that preceded Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration. His main fighting point was that his opponent had grossly overwhelming character flaws that deemed her unfit to serve in the Oval Office.

Trump was more concerned with silencing Clinton (in one case even suggesting she be imprisoned) than arguing over tax plans and health care. Much like the controversy we observe on university campuses, there was almost no debate on the underlying issues, but rather plenty of talk on the allegedly twisted dispositions of those involved.

Sure, this tactic may have led to the most puzzling presidential victory in American history, but this shouldn’t be a convincing strategy for an academic setting. Real progress on controversial issues isn’t made by defining or labeling the character traits of our opponents, or urging the certain university to interfere.

To combat this, I propose a change in how we as a collective student body approach our most divisive issues. One where we prioritize intellectual progress and refrain from using campus free speech as a proxy for arguing matters of global importance.

For example, this year’s “Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights Week” could’ve been much more productive. Imagine if both sides of the debate worked together and held forums to discuss the barriers and obstacles that prevent peace in the region? If this were to happen, both sides could learn about the suffering of their counterparts and reach more informed conclusions.

Maybe if we look past our immediate urge to silence our ideological opposites, debates with useful and logical policy insights can be produced. Instead of urging our universities to interfere, students should begin to open the dialogue with their opponents. Even looking at the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it should be noted that the biggest strides towards peace have taken place around a United Nations negotiating table, where both sides were present.

Especially now, when it appears the Trump-led free world’s approach to diplomacy has reached peak strangeness, we ought to remember that wisdom and knowledge are the sole providers of stability on the issues which divide us most.

I’m not proposing we extend the limits of free speech infinitely, or that the ongoing debate on political correctness and free speech is unimportant. I believe the issues that fall in the grey area — the ones that might be the most important— should be argued on their own merits and not by how they make us feel or their implications on free speech on campus.

The path to victory on controversial issues on campus doesn’t end with intervention from a university’s administrator or the silencing of one’s counterpart. A sound resolution is obtained by proving and refining our logic and this often requires deep thinking, empathy and most importantly, a willingness to compromise with the other side.

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