Dictionary.com defines “devil’s advocate” as a person who advocates an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument or to expose it to a thorough examination.
This past year has been rife with free speech controversies, particularly on college campuses. While most may find it easy to point to an increasing culture of political correctness as the primary cause for concern, much greater consideration ought to be given to the growing imbalance between the value we place on having a diversity of thought and the value we place on actually thinking.
It is crucially important that all voices – no matter how offensive or unpopular – not be stifled or censored. However, this assertion does not suggest people should be offensive simply for the sake of reaffirming the principle of free expression. Donald Trump has captivated the nation as a presidential candidate who speaks his mind, and many people take issue with the offensiveness of his speeches. Yet the problem we should have with Trump isn’t that he makes such hateful remarks on a regular basis, but rather that he continues to have such hateful ideas on his mind.
Those who find themselves under attack for violating political correctness seem to enjoy resorting to the principle of free speech as their automatic defense. They’ll say things to the effect of, “If I say something offensive, you can respond by proclaiming that it offends you, but don’t censor me.” The overwhelming tendency of those opposed to political correctness has thus been to conveniently recuse themselves from the need to think before speaking.
At Stanford, we’ve had our own fair share of offensive speech controversy. The Stanford Review, our campus’ conservative student publication, has generally taken the role of providing a platform for the dissenters in our mostly homogenous pool of liberalism. Under the publication’s masthead reads, “The Stanford Review is a political magazine that promotes independent thought at Stanford. We aim to promote debate about campus and national issues that are otherwise not represented by traditional publications.” The Review can (and generally does) play a vital role on our campus. As devil’s advocates, they work to challenge the majority viewpoint and to reveal gaps in logic that might not have been considered if only a majority opinion were given a voice.
However, while Donald Trump and The Stanford Review both claim to place great value on freedom of expression, they falter on their responsibility to uphold the purpose of that freedom. Homogeneity of thought is not something that we should ever aspire to, yet diversity of thought is only good inasmuch as it encourages us to improve how and what we think about different issues.
When those who are speaking for one particular viewpoint refuse to engage with the reasoning of the opposing viewpoint –when we refuse to understand why what we say may be met with opposition – our voices simply promote divisiveness. So, while we may be upholding free speech by refusing to be silenced, we are also stamping down critical thought by insisting on being the loudest.
It is widely considered hackneyed and unappealing to open a column or an essay with a dictionary definition. My doing so in spite of the prevailing understanding probably shows – albeit with an insignificant example – that not all opinions have equally-meriting counter-opinions. When we come across an expression we disagree with, our first reaction shouldn’t be to automatically express our disagreement. Free speech is made much more valuable by those who listen without a filter than by those who speak without one.
*Although I draw parallels between Donald Trump and The Stanford Review, I have no intention of conflating the demagogue running for president with the student publication.
Contact Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.