The Music of a Free Society

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We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.”

Professor Dan Gilbert, Harvard University, from the book, “Dangerous Ideas.”

mmw_free-speechI sent the letter, below, together with my husband, to the students at Pforzheimer House  (aka “Pfoho”) at Harvard College: 400 undergraduates with whom we have chosen to live in close and energizing proximity.

Dear Pfoho students,

As many of you are aware, we published an Op-Ed at TIME.com in defense of free speech at Harvard and, specifically, the satirical flyers about the final clubs which referenced the date rape drug, Rohypnol, and referred to “no f-ing Jews” and “Coloreds okay.”

We struggle, almost on a daily basis, with how to balance rights and responsibilities in our community. It’s incredibly hard to create the right balance of comfort and challenge in a university setting and we know that our judgment is imperfect. We are also keenly aware that even in the best possible world, we can’t always avoid causing offense or even deep hurt. We can all affirm our core common values, of course, but the devil is in the details. One person’s ‘right’ is another person’s ‘wrong.’ It’s hard to know how and when to speak out in a way that will affirm our collective values but also respect individual beliefs and feelings…

Over the past four years at Pfoho, we’ve had a number of incidents that caused offense or hurt: some of our pro-life students were upset by expressions of pro-choice language on Pfoho-open; a group of students were offended by the sexually suggestive posters for the formal and at the Make it Rain dance; some students were hurt by references to “ghetto bling” on Pfoho-open while others felt the intrusion of a staff member in the discussion was an abuse of power that was disproportionate to the offence. One year, a student asked us to remove him/her from the house email list because it advertised LGBTQ events, which were against his/her religious beliefs. In this case, we explained that being reachable on the house email was a condition of living at Pfoho.  But, did we have a responsibility to take the conversation further? To affirm our own values about respect for LGBTQ students ? To try to change the student’s?  Believe, it or not, we don’t know the answers to those questions.  One year, some vegetarian students expressed deep sadness that we had a lamb roast as part of our Greek celebration of spring. Students who found this entertaining made mocking comments about the protesters, causing further hurt and misunderstanding.

It goes on.

One of the most joyful symbols of the winter season – for some – has the potential to hurt and offend others: the very large Christmas tree in our midst. Our first year, we prohibited ‘overt’ displays of Christmas and only allocated house funds for ‘winter-themed’ decorations. This caused uproar. We have since relaxed our position to accommodate more explicit celebration of religious holidays, including Christmas and Chanukah.  We know that many are pleased; some are not.

We hear from a lot of students, but particularly from students of color and/or students from conservative religious traditions that the college just doesn’t ‘get’ their experience of feeling on the margins of Harvard life.

Sometimes students who feel disempowered feel that our failure to speak out about issues that are important to them reflects an abandonment of them and their values. This makes us incredibly sad, needless to say. (We hope it’s ‘needless to say.’)

And yet: we hold firm in our defense of an open society where potentially offensive statements can be debated in the marketplace of ideas. There are, of course, limits to free speech (such as explicit threats to cause harm). But we think that the words of authority figures like professors and administrators carry great weight; they should be used judiciously. We worry a great deal that the speech environment on American college campuses is gradually becoming the opposite of educational. Although intentions are good (to create harmony and opportunity for all), we worry that Harvard is becoming a place where students may actually fear to express their ideas or think that they don’t have the strength and judgment to have their own ideas – or the strength and judgment to resist the ideas of others. We worry that in the name of ‘safety,’ we are training our students to feel vulnerable – too vulnerable – to the slings and arrows of life.

It’s really hard to live in an open society, especially when we are literally living and eating with each other, 24/7.  But we have faith that you can engage in this kind of debate and we want to find a way to facilitate these conversations, to create opportunities for everyone to have a voice.

We are very committed to fostering an educational environment where all voices are heard and where no one feels silenced. Unfortunately, that goal is not always compatible with feeling safe and comfortable.

We welcome your thoughts and hope you will reach out to speak with us and all the Pfoho staff if you have comments or concerns.  And, more important, we hope you will speak to each other. Next semester, we will host a series of informal and formal gatherings to discuss the role of free speech in a plural society, and how our values might best take shape at Pforzheimer House and beyond. (We thought exam time wasn’t the ideal moment to launch this initiative…)

In closing, we want to share with you some words from Professor Dan Gilbert, from a book called Dangerous Ideas: “We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.”

Thank you for sharing your life experiences and your values with us. It is a privilege to live amongst you all.

Respectfully yours,

Nicholas and Erika

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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