Recently here at Penn State University, there have been some "acts of hate" which have stirred up quite a few people. You can read about it in the campus paper, here and here. I wrote a letter to the editor regarding the hullaballoo, which I'll post here as well.
Might the Black Caucus be overreacting over the recent “acts of hate” on campus? There will always be people in world that will say and do stupid and hateful things. People of every shape, size, color and kind are insulted everyday. Yes, some groups deal with this more than others, but everyone has experienced it—it’s just something you learn to deal with. Surely, the Black Caucus doesn’t think that the university is going end racism any more than they can end world hunger. It does not matter how many statements the university issues, how many task forces they form, or how many diversity requirements they institute—stupid people are a fact of life. They do what they can to foster tolerance and an appreciation of diversity; but short of a thought police, their hands are tied by human nature. One of the greatest aspects of living in a free society is the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, that means some people are going to express views we don’t like. As Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”


Blogger Evan Jones  said...

I regret not having commented on more of your posts lately. I look forward to each of them, and truly enjoy your particular take on things. I tend to disagree with your libertarian ideas, or ideals, perhaps, and have not hesitated to say so in the past, but I also feel they represent both a legitimate viewpoint, and a necessary counterbalance to the mushy liberalism I grew up with. (At heart I am still a mushy liberal, though I find more and more that my heart and mind are greatly at odds.) Your letter to the Collegian was all the good and bad things rolled into one.

I agree that “stupid people are a fact of life.” I agree with the tough advice of Noam Chomsky, one of the marginalized giants of our time. And, I agree that trying to legislate morality, or thoughts, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. People, being what they are, will “say and do stupid and hateful things,” and other people, being the targets of such words and deeds, are bound to be “insulted” from time to time. This is where you generally, and rightly, I feel, tell people to toughen up, get a grip, take responsibility. In a war of words, one fights back with words. Freedom of expression is designed to level the field of battle, but also to remove as much blood from the battlefield as possible. It may be that no greater freedom exists.

The problem is that some acts, though they appear to consist entirely of words, go well beyond what we normally think of as “expression.” We understand that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater exceeds the right of free speech. Even the most hardened libertarian would surely agree with this. Rape certainly exceeds the bounds of something we might call “sexual expression.” Shooting legislators, though I’m sure we might wish to consider which legislators, goes beyond legitimate political expression. But, even inciting people to do such things, using nothing but words, quickly exceeds the context of freedom of expression, and enters the domain of criminality.

The incident reported in the Collegian (2-22-05) was not limited to the free expression of opinions about black people. In the proper forum, the university should be able to tolerate someone saying that he hates black people. Saying “I hate niggers” should be equally defensible, though obviously objectionable on levels not related to freedom of expression. Ed Smith, it seems, was not the recipient of someone’s thoughts or opinions about black people. He was, or appears to have been, the object of an assault. Threatening to lynch him, or “to whip the skin off his back,” amounts to threats of group action against an individual in the context of racial hatred. We are no longer dealing with words as mere words, but entering the domain (already mentioned) of criminality.

The issue then becomes: How will the university deal with this possible assault? Shayla Harvin was quoted as saying that “Penn State University takes a half-hearted, half-assed stance against acts of hatred.” Shayla certainly has a way with words, but saying doesn’t make it so. Assistant Police Supervisor Brian Bittner, calling the incident “a very serious matter” said, “we are here to help provide a safe environment for everyone attending the university.” The implication being that the acting out of racial hatred, or any hatred for that matter, interferes with the public safety. Again, this is outside the bounds of legitimate freedom of expression.

I understand how minor this one incident might seem, and how ridiculous the demands of the Black Caucus may have become. You are absolutely right when you say: “It does not matter how many statements the university issues, how many task forces they form, or how many diversity requirements they institute,” because the issue here is not the creation of opinions or beliefs, but the maintenance of a free zone for the exchange of ideas, something you often mention. Freedom of expression does not exist in an atmosphere of threats and hatred. Nor does it exist in an atmosphere of lawlessness, though the absence of laws might in itself seem the greatest freedom.

I know you would not tolerate teachers exchanging grades for sexual favors, or even expressing their willingness to do so, though the case could be made that “boys will be boys.” So, why reduce “acts of hate” to the absurd category of free expression of stupid people? Sometimes toughening up, getting a grip, and taking responsibility means putting our foot down.

In great appreciation of your posts,

Evan Jones

Sunday, February 27, 2005  

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