Resilience Toolkit

Feeling upset? Pay attention, a learning opportunity has arrived

Appalachian State University’s Dr. Paul Gates offers reasons universities are the ‘home of ideas’ and why students should not fear free speech.
By Linda Coutant

A campus trend of using protests to stop controversial speakers from giving campus lectures seems to be emerging. In March, Middlebury College students in Vermont shouted down controversial social scientist Charles Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve.” In April, protests at two institutions in California interrupted access to speeches by Heather MacDonald, author of “The War on Cops” and a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Is eliminating offensive or upsetting perspectives a good idea? No, says Dr. Paul Gates, who holds both a Ph.D. and juris doctorate and teaches communication law at Appalachian State University.

Gates reminds students that freedom of speech belongs to everyone, not just people we agree with.

“The university campus occupies a special place in American society… it was intended and designed to be the home of ideas. But ideas sometimes conflict and make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they offend us and make us upset and angry. When they do so, that’s the signal that a learning opportunity has arrived, an opportunity to develop a counter-argument and push back,” Gates said.

“The purpose of education is not to confirm or validate what you already believe,” he reminded students during Appalachian’s “Say What? Examining Freedom of Speech at App State” event series in March. Rather, one of the core beliefs of democracy is that people will hear multiple perspectives, recognize the best arguments on political and social issues, and then choose accordingly. Read his full remarks

Toward that end, Gates offered some useful reminders:

Everyone is entitled to free expression.

That’s because the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791, protects free speech. The amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“It is societies that are diverse, pluralistic – and contentiously roiled by controversy – that most urgently need freedom of speech,” Gates said. “To fear the consequences of speech illustrates how far we have drifted from the principles of the First Amendment.”

Don’t stifle expression.

Sabotaging discourse by shouting down an opposing view “gets no one anywhere,” Gates said. “The speaker doesn’t learn the source of the rage that is driving the shouting and chanting. The shouters don’t learn anything of the beliefs that the speaker holds. When this replaces true debate and discussion on campus everybody has been failed by their education.”

When dealing with hate speech on campus, the best antidote may be more speech, he said. “The impulse to stifle expression because it is hateful, erroneous, annoying, alarming or contrary to some political or ideological goal is – in addition to trampling the speech rights of others – does irreparable harm to the very the idea of the university.”

Thrust yourself into the vortex of ideas.

Sheltering students from hurt feelings and challenging emotions that might arise from hearing free speech is not the university’s charge, Gates explained.

“It’s from that collision of viewpoints and assault on preconceptions that truth arises,” said Gates. “The institution… should be creating opportunities for [students] to thrust themselves into the vortex of ideas.”

Gates pointed out that in the 1859 publication “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill argued that even a false belief is valuable because it allows debate through which ideas compete with others and the truth of an opposing view is confirmed. Gates also noted how Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would carefully distinguish between facts and ideas – the first, Holmes said, can be demonstrably false and the second cannot but can always be countered.

Bring objectionable ideas into the daylight.

The best way to overcome objectionable ideas is “to bring them out of the shadows and call them out in the daylight and show why they are wrong,” Gates said.

“Let the audience decide after all points of view are presented in the marketplace of ideas. To use a rough paraphrase of the feminist writer and activist Audre Lourde, oppression can’t be overcome by using the tools of the oppressor.”

That leads to another point:

Sharpen your arguments and learn to defend them.

Because the larger society will not automatically echo one’s convictions, Gates encouraged students to “sharpen your arguments and learn to defend them and challenge those who challenge you.”

He encouraged students to think like attorneys, who not only know their own case inside and out but their opponent’s case, too, so they can rebut every point.

“The lawyer learns the opposition’s case by studying depositions and other materials. The citizen learns by listening,” he said.

Practice your thinking, speaking and writing skills in college every day, for “now is the time to develop and flex your mental muscles so you’ll be ready to participate in the continuous maelstrom that is political and social struggle,” he told students.

Accept that not every argument can be won.

No lawyer wins every case, nor does every citizen. At some point, arguments are exhausted. But the dialogue and debate are still worth the effort, Gates said.

“Everyone has had the opportunity to learn something about others and the experiences that have informed their opinions and made them who they are.

“If everyone acts in good faith after reaching that point, what started out as differences that were originally divisive can at least become differences that are the threads of the fabric of a successful multi-faceted and pluralistic community.”