Discussing the freedoms and limits of seeking the truth

It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. 

–  Blessed (soon-to-be St.) John Henry Newman

This past Monday at Georgetown University’s 16th Annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference, the keynote speaker––acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan––was forced to leave the stage after protestors refused to let him speak. 

About two weeks ago, a group of students at Notre Dame drew national attention and in some cases, outrage, for writing an inflammatory poem criticizing Catholic teaching on human sexuality. The poem linked a video that some have interpreted as threatening violence against some of our community’s students, professors, and alumni (towards the end, a student uses a crowbar to beat a sign with campus article whose authors are circled in red).

Catholic universities have emerged, it seems, as focus points in campus free-speech conflicts. This development can be good for the conflicts in the long run. Catholic schools and their students have unique intellectual resources that they should share at every opportunity, and know that they are called to be more than vitriolic, spiteful, or intimidating and threatening in their dealings with their neighbors. 

This should hold especially true when the issues are controversial, like sexuality and transgenderism. We shouldn’t dismiss the emotions involved, but emotions themselves should not prevent us from discussing the issues. 

Catholic universities, unlike their secular counterparts threatened by cultural drift, can be firmly committed to the pursuit of truth. This commitment comes from a well-placed confidence in the human capacity to actually know and live in accord with truths, rather than just doubt everything and live according to tastes. As such, these schools can be firmly committed to some of the freedoms this pursuit requires: thought, inquiry, and speech.

What I think is under attack on this campus, to a limited extent, and on others much more is the principle of free speech. It’s worth briefly recalling why this principle is a good one. The purpose of free speech is to serve the mission of the university: to seek truth. We can seek this, and we desire to seek it, because we were created with the capacity to reason and to speak. We can learn, craft language and express ideas. We develop our capacity to do these things both through accepting the wisdom of good teachers and thinking, arguing, and deciding for ourselves what we think and how we articulate it best and most charitably. 

An essential part of our humanity, then, is the freedom to speak our minds. In our calling to serve others, it’s also recognizing, and even protecting, the ability of others to speak their mind. 

Contrary to this understanding of speech is one that requires some views to be censored, for the reason that some ideas and their articulation are themselves violent. At one level, this actually makes sense. We prevent things that are violent. It’s within our capacity, generally, and it is right to do so. Especially to protect the vulnerable.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that some ideas and their utterance can be acts of violence. A main problem with this view is that it risks dismissing the principle of free speech, which applies to all people by virtue of their humanity, in favor of the arbitrary concepts of power and popularity. Those concepts, those passions, will come to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable. Violent is a powerful label to put on something. And if who can speak and what topics they can speak on are based on power, the strong will oppress the weak. If it’s based upon popularity, the many will oppress the few. 

Even so, the view that speech can be violence seems to have gained some traction within our own campus community. One of the posters displayed in the controversial video released by Notre Dame students read: “Queer-phobic discourse is violence.” 

These students probably see the tragic, shockingly high suicide rates among those who identify as transgender, or struggle with gender dysphoria, and are saddened, even angered. Rightfully so. And they want to do something about it. Rightfully so. They assume, it seems, that the harm, the anxieties, and the suicides because these individuals are not loved, not accepted, and even actively alienated by people and society. Certainly in some cases this is true. 

But it’s possible that the causality is not so simple. For example, Sydney Wright, writing recently in The Daily Signal, tells her harrowing story of struggle, transition, and tragedy. She describes how when searching for help with tough psychological issues related to her sexuality and gender, all she found was one imperative message: transition. The doctors she went to didn’t seem to genuinely evaluate her, but rather simply green-light her wishes. Once she began to transition, she experienced immediate problems. The injections of male hormones had seriously adverse effects, causing her to become pre-diabetic and gain 50 pounds in just over a year.

She said it was her grandfather who finally sat her down:

“With tears in his eyes, he asked me to stop. Everything in me wanted to keep going—not even because I wanted it anymore, but because of pride. “What will people think?” I thought. I had made everyone play along. If I suddenly stopped, what would I tell people? Those questions ate at me. And yet, there was my grandpa, the man I respect most, pleading with me through tears. I just couldn’t tell him no. That was a saving grace. I would have let this treatment kill me before admitting I’d screwed up. His intervention may have saved my life.”

I do not point to this story to suggest that it is the experience of every individual struggling with questions of sexuality and gender identity. Every person is unique, and every person is equally deserving of love and compassion. I draw attention to the story to caution against the chilling of discussion about the issue. If “queer-phobic discourse,” impermissible because it is violent, includes things like arguments for why transition surgery is not the best way to help those struggling with gender dysphoria, then it’s not the people making those arguments that you hurt.

It’s people like Sydney Wright. Those struggling, who feel they have nowhere to go, and whose voices are silenced because they don’t fit into the dominant narrative.

When speech can be violence, when the lines for acceptable discourse are based on power and popularity, no one wins.

If special groups—social media users, administrators of a school or government—can decide what speech is violent and enforce the decision, then inevitably groups and individuals found to be politically unsavory will be censored. The argument doesn’t seem to draw careful lines between legitimate incitements to violence––“attack this person for x reason”––and ideas and words that are unpopular. Indeed, preventing “violence” will become mere pretext for the punishment and censorship of unpopular ideas.

But speech should not be treated this way, and words and ideas, unless they specifically call for unjustified violent acts, should not be considered violent. Violence is about strength and weakness, and usually the strong win out within this frame. Speech isn’t the same thing as violence precisely because it’s for everyone, not just the privileged few, and not just the strong. 

When speech is protected, those seeking and speaking the truth win. 

If anyone could make a case that free speech is just about power and that some speech actually is violent, Frederick Douglass would be a strong contender. Douglass was born and raised a slave. He was deprived of all sorts of things, and even after he taught himself to read and write, society told him that he wasn’t a person.

Yet in December 1860, years prior to the Civil War, Douglass delivered an address in Boston, Massachusetts defending free speech:

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech.”

It’s not that free speech is a cover for power. As Douglass teaches, free speech itself is the power. 

So if you think something is wrong––deeply, deeply wrong––use your freedom to speak. Speak well, not to intimidate, earnestly seek the truth, and help others along with you.

Nick Marr is a senior from San Diego, CA studying political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. It was neither his first nor his last argument. He can be reached at nmarr@nd.edu.