No, Not Those Cartoons

March 13, 2006

Last week, Donn M. Fresard, the editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, wrote an editorial addressing the controversy surrounding several cartoons that the student paper published. One of the cartoons in question was a critique of affirmative action, and as Fresard notes, some students were offended:

The most controversial of these cartoons portrayed a high school classroom full of dark-skinned students and one white student. At the front of the classroom, a black teacher tells the class that they can all expect special preferences when applying to college—except for Bob, the lone white student.

Implicit in the drawing is a blunt and emotionally powerful argument against race-conscious admissions policies: that they unfairly discriminate against whites.

It’s not a nuanced argument, and it’s one that I happen to disagree with. But it certainly reflects a mainstream opinion, and one that about half of Michigan voters hold. As a submission to the editorial page—a forum meant for public debate of important issues from all sides—it was perfectly appropriate.

To be sure, the cartoon caused offense. It simplified the issue of racial preferences, and to some black students, it felt like an accusation that they didn’t earn their way into the University.

But being offended is part of living and participating in a liberal and pluralistic society. When we’re all free to express ourselves, we will all come across expression that offends our sensibilities. Besides, when a common but faulty argument appears on an editorial page, it provides the opportunity for a rebuttal—a chance to change minds.

Not everyone felt that way. Student leaders, arguing that the cartoon was “objectively racist,” demanded retractions and printed apologies. Later, a committee of the University’s faculty senate even argued that it was potentially illegal—that the caricature of “an institutional policy favoring diversity” could, by encouraging a “racially hostile learning environment,” violate federal equal-protection laws.

In other words, if you have qualms about affirmative action, keep quiet—we know we’re right, your views are offensive, and it’s wrong for you to express them.

Fresard is exactly right. If a college newspaper’s editorial page isn’t the place to discuss controversial issues, then where is it okay? He also goes on to make a bigger point about the critics of the cartoons:

Under the rules of this culture, if nearly anything offends you, you are entitled to demand it be taken back. In some countries of similar attitudes, there are laws against holding certain opinions; witness Austria, where the revisionist historian David Irving is going to prison for his lunatic view that the Jewish Holocaust didn’t happen.

The First Amendment is hard to get around, though, so in America we have activists and sensitive citizens to enforce the rules. People with unpopular or unconventional opinions on religion and especially race are better off avoiding the topics in public.

In the same category are people who are prone to saying things without thinking them through. There are no thoughtless mistakes, just racist people.

The culture I’m talking about makes it nearly impossible for people to honestly debate sensitive issues in public. That’s counterproductive. Since the Enlightenment, liberal Western societies have resolved disputes and questions through open discussion. If an idea—that Islam is a violent religion, that genetics might account for differences in gender equality, that affirmative action does more harm than good—is wrong, then rational argument or science will prove it wrong. If we as a society want to discredit patently false ideas like Irving’s, destroying his arguments in the open is a far better option than silencing him with prison. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant.

If real, open discussion doesn’t happen in public and in academia, then people who hold misguided views will never be proven wrong or change their minds; most will simply shut up or seek like-minded people to share their opinions.

In many ways, this campus provides a fine example of the worst consequences of rigid multiculturalism and identity politics. Too often, what we call “dialogue” on issues like race is closer to preaching. Our education on diversity is mostly limited to reverence of multiculturalism and learning to spot stereotypes; few come away knowing how to engage those who don’t agree or don’t understand. Maybe that’s because the University was until recently in the habit of threatening those people with suspension under its speech code. The effect of all this seems to be a campus that is shamefully self-segregated and too nervous to talk about it.

This is exactly the type of environment that speech codes help create, and why they are so dangerous on college campuses. Again, to quote Fresard’s excellent piece, “If an idea upsets you, rather than attacking it as offensive, try to prove it wrong. It won’t always be comfortable; it shouldn’t be.”

Schools:  University of Michigan – Ann Arbor