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On confronting evil

By Jonathan Meilaender

I’m sure many of you have read Fr. Paul Taylor’s email on a new anti-bigotry initiative, as well as Mary Collins’ subsequent announcement of details. It is gratifying to see that Saint Vincent takes seriously the need for a respectful and sincere academic community, and I appreciate the administration’s efforts to achieve this end. Nevertheless, the mechanism proposed in this case ought to raise serious concerns.

It is a laudable goal to fight bigotry and hatred; a free society should, of its very nature, tend toward the abolition of such evils, for the promise of a free society is a public forum in which truth can defend itself fairly and outcompete false or dangerous narratives. Nevertheless, not every mechanism proposed to achieve such an end ought to be implemented. It is essential to ensure that the cure is not worse than the illness.

In our case, I fear the cure may be an unhealthy one. The mechanism described by Fr. Paul and Ms. Collins allows individuals to “make reports” of “occurrences involving bigotry or hatred.” “Bigotry” and “hatred” are not clearly defined. The student handbook includes very broad and unsatisfactory descriptions of “harassment” and “discrimination” that do little to clarify the meaning of these terms.

In the abstract, there is nothing wrong with collecting evidence of bigotry and discrimination. Indeed, such a data collection initiative could be essential to the formulation of sound campus policy (not to mention crafting a more coherent definition of bigotry, hatred, harassment, etc.). But it is clear that this is more than a data-collection initiative. The reporting mechanism appears to germinate a disciplinary process for persons accused of “bigotry or hatred.”

Such a disciplinary process is extremely dangerous. In the first place, who determines what constitutes bigotry and hatred? Offensiveness and bigotry are not identical. Many people hold political and moral positions that I consider deeply offensive, but I do not accuse them of bigotry, and even if I do, I have no wish to see them punished for expressing their opinions. Of course, there is a difference between expressing an opinion and, say, physical violence arising from racist or anti-Semitic motives. But there are also many places where the line between “offensive” and “hateful” is pretty hazy, and a system of anonymous reports offers little hope of a fair hearing for the accused.

And, yes—Ms. Collins’ email makes clear that they can be anonymous! I find such a provision both bizarre and outrageous. Outrageous, because it goes against every accepted standard of due process since the Bronze Age. Bizarre, because, surely, any violation flagrant enough to deserve sanction is likewise flagrant enough to merit a public accusation.

Consider, now, the right way to counter hateful speech (and remember that hateful speech is not “offensive” speech). I am convinced that the only way to do so is to allow it to see the light and wither in the face of truth; to show clearly why it is hateful and wrong and to provide a better option. It is only more speech that can ever conquer evil speech. The answer is not silence; silence breeds doubt and resentment, and the man who begins with a sincere mistake may, when silenced, easily grow embittered in his views and more certain in his evil.

Further, consider the essential nature of a university. Surely it is and must be a forum for free debate. Learning can only happen in the context of free speech; false views must be vocalized and examined before they can be discarded as false, and true views deserve the same critical treatment. There are few places so well suited as the academic world to this essential examination of good and evil. We see how, in the political sphere, speech is distorted, attacked, and necessarily used as a blunt tool. If there is any public forum in which we can examine what is or is not bigotry and hatred—any place to examine how we ought to treat our neighbor—it is a university. And so it is particularly necessary to ensure that free speech is protected at Saint Vincent.

But I fear that the process described, if implemented as described, will chill free speech on this campus, and create a climate of fear rather than free debate. Unless the process is transparent and well-defined, it will be easily abused to silence undesirable opinions. And I do not wish to grant the college authority to decide what is or is not desirable, even if their decisions should happen to agree with my preferences. Further, any reporting system requires robust safeguards to prevent false accusations. In a simple I said/you said scenario, false accusations are all too easy to make, especially if the burden of proof rests on the accused—and similar institutions at other colleges and universities have shown us that it often does. In other words, this attempt to end “harassment” is very likely to produce more “harassment” than it ends.

I am reminded of a particularly absurd incident that recently took place at Duquesne University. Dr. Gary Shank, a Duquesne education professor with ties to Saint Vincent’s late (and renowned) John Deely, was suspended for vocalizing a slur in the context of a discussion on the history of racially-charged language—in other words, he was suspended for talking about bigotry in a discussion designed to critically examine that odious phenomenon. Or, to be particularly blunt, he was suspended (and may still be fired) for doing his job. Saint Vincent appears to think that Shank’s treatment was a very good example of a proper disciplinary proceeding. An email dated June 16 and sent to all SVC faculty refers explicitly to this event. It says: “Moving forward, insensitivity to this issue and behaviors exemplified in the article above [referring to Shank] disrupt (and for some destroy) the learning environment and could constitute harassment, which cannot and will not be tolerated.” These behaviors do not “disrupt” the learning environment, except in the very healthy sense that they teach students to discern good from evil. And if this clearly defensible exercise of academic freedom is so easily condemned, it is very easy to imagine worse scenarios than this, especially if there is no way to know who made an accusation, what the accusation is, and what exactly constitutes intolerable speech (and the bar for that ought to be something much higher than “insensitivity”).

Can we salvage this attempt at building “One Bearcat Community,” as Fr. Paul’s email called it? Saint Vincent prides itself on community. Surely we know that we are among friends when we can speak freely; do we not use less care when voicing our opinions to those we know well? A community enforced by fear and secrecy is no community at all. And so a good first step would be removing the anonymity provision and creating a transparent process of review. That way, conversations about bigotry and discrimination can return to the public sphere, where they belong, and far from discouraging free speech, encourage spirited debate about what constitutes free expression and what crosses the line into criminality.

I hope very much to see Saint Vincent remain civil and grow increasingly civil amid division and polarization. But I do not think the way to achieve freedom is to restrict freedom; I do not think the way to achieve equality is to insist that some opinions are more equal than others; I do not think the way to ensure diversity is to mandate uniformity. Let us be proud, not that we can be civil because, like children, we are sent to our room for being rude. Rather, let us be proud that we can be civil because, like adults, we choose freely to overcome ourselves in order to tolerate and engage with those views we dislike, with those that hurt us, and, if we must, with those that are evil. We do not destroy evil by hiding from it, like children. We destroy evil by facing it, like men and women, like Americans.

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