Letter to the editor: When reconsidering public discourse, offense is not an argument

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I have long been intrigued and even amused by the attempts of many to silence the views of some. In marginal cases these pursuits involve coercion, namely government intervention or simply the use of a baseball bat, but in most instances an intellectual mob rises up to elbow the minority out of public view. Accusations of insensitivity, extremism, and prejudice are thrown so often and with such force that anyone with an opinion contrary to the intellectual mob has no choice but to quietly sit down.

It is worth noting that when the United States was founded, the ability to think and express one’s views was held in extremely high esteem. Not just by the Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, but abroad as well. English philosopher John Stuart Mill staunchly defended freedom of thought and expression in “On Liberty,” even gesturing toward the U.S. as an example of proper political discourse — with some reservation. He claimed that only when fierce debate and argumentation is manifest in society can the very best pursuits become apparent. Similarly, French political economist Frédéric Bastiat, fearful of a socialist totalitarian state, lauded freedom of the press as a check against tyranny. Benjamin Constant, a French liberal, decried suppression of thought, as he believed that yielding power to any authority assumes that authority must itself be infallible, which is of course an absurdity.

These arguments are still valid in contemporaneity, and we should reconsider them in order to again focus on freedom of thought as a valuable end. I grant that it is a rare person who suggests that the government itself should suppress journalists or academics. However, is it so different for the intellectual mob to quiet the few than for the government to step in and turn off the printing presses? I have no qualms regarding argumentation. If any topic is thrust into the public sphere I hope that the various perspectives are heard, argued, and resolved with reason and logic as the foundation.

However, the intellectual mob uses no such tactics. More and more, vast smoke screens are thrown up laced with notions of the supremacy of feelings. As put above, this mob decries the few by claiming their rhetoric is insensitive and offensive. In some cases the few are labeled extreme. Such a label has lost all meaning. Calling someone an extremist is an empty accusation and one which lacks context. “Extreme relative to what?” ought to be the question the few have in retort. Perhaps the assumption is that the few are extreme relative to the mainstream public discourse, but then the claim remains void and superficial. Simply because a few disagree with the majority is a statement of fact rather than a normative claim — much less an argument that the few are wrong. Indeed, history has shown that the few can be correct in the face of the majority.

Regarding offense and insensitivity, is it not the case that those in favor of Jim Crow in the South or barring women from board rooms were and are offended by arguments for blacks voting or female CEOs? It is a crude irony that so many of my generation are willing to viciously offend their bodies by imbibing noxious amounts of alcohol, but as regards their minds they require strict walls of isolation to secure them from any outside assault. Making ‘non-offense’ the goal of discussion is to commit epistemological suicide. The logical extent of such a goal divides into two cases: either reduce and dilute the language to such an extent that every word is so ambiguous that having a conversation is impossible or say nothing at all. Of these possibilities both have the harsh consequence that real public, intellectual discourse is beyond reach and sequestered to private backrooms where individuals hold their ear to the door for fear of someone overhearing the discussion.

Rather than rising up as a mob and silencing the views of those whom are not in entire agreement we should confront ideas with rigor and honesty — offense be damned. Just as in the case of Jim Crow and the freedom of women any social discourse will result in the offense of some, if not many. However, that does not imply that we should forfeit productive discussion for the sake of a mystical if not ludicrous notion that anyone has freedom from offense. Any pursuit to make non-offense primal will necessarily degrade the intellectual worth and eventual prosperity of any group, political or not.

Vincent Graziano, ’18, CAS Philosophy and Mathematics

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