Preserving the Forum

I recently attended an event at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum that featured neuroscientist and atheist intellectual Sam Harris and Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist who now works to combat radical Islam. I sat listening to these two share their experiences about working together on their new book Islam and the Future of Tolerance, each approaching the problem of radical Islam from very different perspectives and ultimately finding common ground. As a result of their collaboration and individual work, Harris and Nawaz routinely receive death threats from Islamists. Yet prominent voices on the left also vehemently denounce both men as being Islamophobic.
Given today’s climate of political correctness, it was a small miracle to have a controversial atheist intellectual and a former Islamist extremist sharing a stage and engaging in a productive dialogue about one of the most contentious issues our world currently faces without demands for boycott or censorship. This is the hallmark of an institution that doesn’t simply respect free speech, but also actively promotes it, defending those whom others would silence and exposing students to all sorts of ideas and viewpoints, even ones that may make some uncomfortable.
In many other countries, the public dialogue between Nawaz and Harris would never have happened—they might have been arrested or even killed for such a conversation. But even on other U.S. college campuses, this forum may not have been held. Brandeis University is the first that comes to mind of a growing list of schools that have disinvited controversial speakers to appease students who are too unwilling to confront ideas that make them uncomfortable or with which they disagree.
But one doesn’t have to be an honorary speaker to incur the disdain of those who would seek to silence those with whom they disagree. One could simply be a fellow student who holds an opinion outside the traditionally liberal sociopolitical mindset that dominates most university campuses. I happen to be one such student. Nobody has to respect the ideas that I or anyone else puts forward, nor do I expect to persuade others to always see my point of view. But even if most of my peers reject my beliefs, I would hope they still respect me as a person, as an individual who is more than just my position on taxes, healthcare, or ISIS. The desire to censor derives from an inherent disrespect— for an idea, but also for the person promoting that idea. But while criticism of an idea may be part of healthy debate, visibly or verbally disrespecting a person rarely is.
Nonetheless, my time at Harvard still leads me to believe that censorship derived from disrespect will not overpower those who are willing to understand perspectives that fundamentally challenge their own beliefs. Harvard is not perfect, but one thing it gets right is supporting free speech without exception. I have witnessed this staunch defense of free speech firsthand, when faculty members have refused to bow to student demands to censor certain ideas from being taught, and I witnessed it again at the forum with Nawaz and Harris.
At the HPR, I would like to think we are similarly dedicated to upholding this value of free speech. But when we discuss a contentious issue or argument, we tend to be overly cautious— quick to apologize to student readers who were offended by an article and quick to criticize the writer (and editor) responsible for the offending material. To be sure, all journalism requires a certain level of civility, intellectual honesty, and respect for a diverse audience, but this does not mean that we should approach controversial and sensitive topics with such overly-cautious language that our arguments pack little, if any, punch.
The right to freedom of speech was not intended to protect cautious, timid, or universally accepted ideas, but rather new, bold, thought-provoking, game-changing, and yes, even offensive ideas. As students and journalists, we should be more provocative with what we write. In an environment where an overwhelming majority of the student body roughly shares the same political stances, it is very easy to write uncontroversial arguments. It is far more difficult to challenge the status quo, to go out on a limb and be a lone voice arguing in favor or against particular policies. But it is perhaps even harder still to listen to an idea that deeply offends you, that makes you shudder in repulsion, and utter in response, “I disagree, but I will defend your right to say it.”
Image source: Tim Sackton/Flickr

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