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Debate and its discontents: Robert Spencer and the limits of free speech

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In seventh grade, my best friend and I decided we’d be Supreme Court justices when we grew up. We mapped out an elaborate plan to ascend the judicial hierarchy, culminating in a life adorned with illustrious black robes, weighty wooden gavels and the opportunity to spend all day deliberating over the day’s most exigent constitutional conundrums. Misguided, sure, but an aspiration that was dear to me nonetheless.

When we got to high school, we immediately joined the policy debate team as partners. Some students were there to improve their public speaking skills, make friends or learn about current events. But us? We wanted to argue. And we did: I spent every ounce of free time poring through philosophy and political science journals or reading FiveThirtyEight’s latest predictions. On weekends, we’d fly all over — to Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. — competing from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until we collapsed, exhausted, onto our hotel beds.

By 12th grade, college applications had rolled around. That meant weeks of nonstop Starbucks interviews, 150-word essays and far more strained self-reflection than I’d prefer. Over and over, I was asked to “briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity,” and without fail, I raved about the merits of debate:

Why do I enjoy debate? It’s such a unique activity … instead of only advocating for your own position, you’re forced to listen to — and even argue for — your opponents. Debate creates competitive incentives to be open-minded, because you have to understand the other side to debate them. It changed my whole worldview.

And my interviewer would smile, nod and throw in a few words of affirmation:

You’re so mature for your age! Everyone is so polarized on college campuses these days. We need people like you to get everyone to come together.

Of course, I’d agree, thankful that my hard work had been validated. But after I was accepted into college and finished the last round of my high school debate career, I began to be less confident in my convictions.

Now, it’s week 7 of my freshman fall at Stanford, and I hear the familiar ding! of my email inbox. It’s a mass email from Provost Persis Drell, subject line: “Test: Free expression and inclusion at Stanford.” Inside, Provost Drell includes a link to her latest post on Notes from the Quad, a blog dedicated to highlighting “thoughts and observations from Stanford leaders.”

I almost groaned, because the free speech debate is one we’ve all seen before. We get it, the wind of freedom blows. But this appeared to be a direct response to the controversy over the Stanford Republicans’ invitation to Robert Spencer to speak on campus, and therefore was particularly salient.

Spencer’s background has been extensively covered, as he is well-known for his extreme and controversial views on Islam despite having few academic qualifications. Furthermore, he openly states that his rhetoric is “deliberately combative” because “it’s fun” — an assertion that seems to call into question the intellectual merit of his arguments.

Naturally, I was intrigued to hear what the Stanford administration had to say. I clicked.

The sentiments echoed by Provost Drell and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne are quite familiar. They reiterate the view of my alumni interviewers and many others: that free expression, even when intolerant, is crucial to intellectual development and understanding. They write:

“Breakthroughs in understanding come not from considering a familiar, limited range of ideas, but from considering a broad range of ideas, including those we might find objectionable, and engaging in rigorous testing of them through analysis and debate…

In a truly inclusive culture, everyone in our diverse community… has a voice and feels empowered to participate in active debate.”

Initially, this explanation seems compelling. After all, like most Stanford students, I’m a fierce proponent of rigorous debate, higher-order testing and promoting diversity in our community. But behind the innocuous-sounding buzzwords, what is being said?

I read this blog post as presenting a few primary arguments. First, that without speakers such as Robert Spencer, Stanford students will have their perspective narrowed to a “familiar, limited range of ideas.” Second, that without funding discriminatory speakers, Republican-leaning students will not have “a voice” on campus. And third, that by awarding platforms to extremist speakers, Stanford students will be able to engage “in rigorous testing” of ideas and achieve “breakthroughs in understanding.” Essentially, I perceive it as insinuating that without views like Spencer’s, debate becomes impossible.

However, I am skeptical that Robert Spencer’s presence is as essential to our intellectual development as our Provost and President suggest. Consider it: The Hoover Institution, one of the nation’s most prominent conservative-leaning think tanks, resides in the center of campus. Many Hoover fellows, including my Introduction to International Relations professor and my pre-major advisor, are respected university faculty. Certainly, Stanford students have plenty of opportunities to discuss and analyze diverse academic perspectives without hosting a blatantly Islamophobic speaker.

After all, is a debate really incomplete unless it addresses every possible perspective, no matter how extremist in nature? Is it fair to call students “limited” in their thinking for denying intellectual credence to arguments that egregiously misrepresent religious texts? Does inclusivity mean allowing racists’ voices to be heard, even if it means silencing minorities in fear? Absolutely not. And this isn’t a radical idea. Rather, boundaries on free speech are precisely why the debate community wouldn’t consider topics like “Slavery was a good thing” or “Women don’t deserve the vote” to be worth discussing.

Furthermore, beyond the academic implications, I am concerned about the message this sends to students from marginalized populations. Words may not break like sticks and stones, but they define the norms for what constitutes acceptable behavior at Stanford. Especially in a climate where white nationalists feel comfortable pinning posters around campus and hate crimes are on the rise in supposedly “liberal” cities, it is imperative that Stanford protect the physical and psychological well-being of its most marginalized students. To give “a voice” to ignorance and intolerance is both ethically and intellectually bankrupt.

Even if they cannot prevent Robert Spencer from speaking, the University can and should use its power to freeze the use of student funds going toward the event. There is no reason to financially empower explicitly Islamophobic speakers who promote hatred for members of our community when the funds could instead go toward supporting our community centers, mental health services and financial aid: resources that strengthen unity, rather than divide us. Ultimately, free expression might be a University value, but so are tolerance, empathy and equality.

So I’d like to pose a question to the administration: What matters more? Stanford’s abstract commitment to unrestricted expression in every instance, or the safety and well-being of Muslim students and other marginalized populations on campus?

I know what my answer is. I may have spent years insisting on hearing both sides of every issue, but I will proudly be the first to say that some ideas are simply not worth debating.

 

Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.