“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
— Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler
Niemöller spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. His crime was speaking out against Adolf Hitler. This should open everyone’s eyes in the current political climate, both nationally and on campus. While it is easy to dismiss people who disagree, I reassert the importance of open dialogue in any free society.
A trend I see both nationally and on campus is the tendency to want to shut down any opposing views without open debate or dialogue. This is happening regardless of party affiliation or political beliefs, and it is important to recognize hypocrisy where it exists. We have attacks coming from both sides — a president who calls out mainstream media sources as “fake news” (more recently “very fake news”), and those same sources who complain about being labeled fake news, calling out other news outlets for being fake news.
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The problem is not in determining which news sources are more accurate — though it is the responsibility of news sources to deliver the truth. But the problem is giving authority to one person or organization to determine and decide for everyone what is true and what is not. By controlling what is true, you are essentially controlling reality. It is inherently dangerous to allow one person or media outlet to decide for everyone what is fact. Therefore, it is vital to allow all news organizations to exist, to have a voice and to be treated with respect.
If you disagree with something, your first reaction should not be to dismiss it or attack its credibility. You should instead engage in open dialogue and allow the best ideas to win. This shouldn’t be a problem, because if you really believe your ideas are the best, then you should have no reservations toward debating opposing viewpoints rather than dismissing them before any dialogue can occur. Only through free and open dialogue do the best ideas emerge, which is of utmost importance to the preservation of our republic and experiment of self-government.
Keeping in mind how important open dialogue is for creating a culture that produces the best ideas, I would like to look at some recent controversies on the University of Wisconsin campus. For months, our own campus has been a remarkable battleground for the future of free speech. From the visit of conservative speaker Ben Shapiro to the decision to offer a class entitled “The Problem of Whiteness,” this campus can and will determine whether true, open dialogue is acceptable and desirable. I argue it must be.
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The time is now to choose free speech. What this means is it is OK to bring in Ben Shapiro just as it is equally OK to protest him. It is OK to offer a class called “The Problem of Whiteness,” and it is equally OK to question the contents and message of such a class. It is important all voices have a say.
Further, this is important: Just because you say something, doesn’t mean you are free from criticism, disagreement and debate. This is what a true free and open society looks like, and it will foster the best ideas. If you say something, I must be able to respond, you must be able to respond back and so on. At a university as exceptional as UW, we have the opportunity to help each other grow, debate ideas and come up with new solutions to the world’s problems. If someone questions your belief or idea it should not be personal, but rather an invitation and opportunity for everyone to learn and grow.
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Both the governor and the chancellor have recently weighed in on the necessity to create a campus culture that encourages the free and open flow of ideas. Gov. Scott Walker is proposing a law in the 2017-2019 executive budget to “codify the state’s commitment to academic freedom.” In it, he proposes the UW Board of Regents and each college campus “shall guarantee all members of the system’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.
Members of the system’s community are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus as well as speakers who are invited to express their views, but they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.
The board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank seems to also be committed to protecting speech of all forms. In a statement written in January, she said, “I’ve always thought that universities’ greatest value to society is that they are places where any idea is thinkable and debatable … even ideas that shock and insult. A university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech is a commitment that allows all ideas to be presented and discussed.”
Both the governor and chancellor’s commitment to free and open dialogue on campus are very encouraging. As a university, we must continue to create an environment where all people and viewpoints are welcome. We must protect everyone’s right to speech and to hold whatever beliefs they may have. We must allow any speaker, and we must allow any protest. Perhaps even more importantly, we must strive to debate ideas, look for the pros and cons of every viewpoint, challenge each other to look at things from many different perspectives and then come together with a broader understanding of truth.
It’s time to return to the story of Niemöller. He refused to speak up for other people, and when he needed someone to speak up for him, there was no one. This relates very well to free speech. Dismissing or shutting down anyone’s speech must be viewed as shutting down everyone’s speech, even your own. Instead of silencing other people, we should be ready and willing to debate ideas. We should question other people’s views, critique and debate.
If we disagree, we should not dismiss their views, but we should explain why we disagree, what we believe and why. Only then, in a culture of free-flowing ideas, can the best ideas emerge. As a university and as a culture at large, let’s live up to the great reputation and history of UW. Through open dialogue and debate, we can change and challenge minds to become the best we can be, and in the process, change the world.
Austin Booth ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying political science.
Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) is an organization on campus that advocates for the protection of civil liberties, free markets and fiscal responsibility. Feel free to reach out to us and attend our meetings. Find us on social media.