Opinion: The failure of empathy at the heart of Lafayette’s free speech initiatives

On Aug. 12, 2017, I was in the crowd when James Fields drove his vehicle into a gathering of anti-racist activists at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right Rally. In the months leading up to that day, activists in Charlottesville tried to convince the city that the desire of potential rally attendees to “peacefully advocate for ethnic cleansing” was a contradiction in terms. Some arguments, we insisted, should not take up space in our community.

These experiences in Charlottesville have helped me see the falsities of free speech discourse, to identify the ways political centrists, but also fascist, white supremacists, weaponize the first amendment to create space for politics that threaten lives.

As a recent alumnus, it has been concerning to see this same discourse mobilized by various free speech initiatives on campus: including the Lafayette Symposium and, especially, the Mill Series, even with its recent (and inadequate) change in institutional structure. Both have brought bigots to campus under the false pretense of open inquiry.

The call for civil debate across political camps marshalled by both initiatives veils a deep failure of empathy at the center free speech discourse. Politics is not merely an intellectual exercise, but a matter of life and death. By no coincidence, calls for civility tend to come from those whose lives and livelihoods are not at stake. Simply: it is easy for Professor Van Dyck, as a white man, to argue dispassionately that racism is not a current phenomenon in American social life, as he did at a Mill Series event, but a much greater challenge for a person of color to reply with similar “civility” when their wellbeing is an open question. Sometimes the appropriate tone is rage.

There is no question that racism is a force in our contemporary world, though the Mill Series felt it important to debate as much. The Mill Series is premised on the notion that one only knows something to be true when you can refute its opposite. Inquiry need not be adversarial, but such an ideology offers a convincing cover for those with increasingly, and rightfully marginalized opinions. The questions the Mill Series chooses to ask and the positions they broadcast on campus are not about creating a fair debate between equally justified, opposing viewpoints, but making space for bigots to speak boldly the secret resentments of many conservatives: forced for the first time to occupy, in universities, a space where they are not the majority.

Even if one learns best, as the Mill Series organizers argue, through adversarial debate, it should be common sense that some questions do not give back in potential intellectual gain what they risk in blood. Jordan Peterson’s contention that there are natural differences in intellect between “the ethnicities” does not deserve to be argued against, but willfully suppressed (not simply ignored). I suspect the Mill Series would already be off campus if we did not live in a so called “economy of ideas” much like our actual economy: one in which resources, and thus one’s ability to speak, are seriously maldistributed.

By John Favini ’14, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Virginia. 

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