Discourse / Editorials / April 24, 2008

Protest is free speech

Campus Republicans, I feel your pain. You must be saddened by how the student body handled Ashcroft’s visit. I feel you. We campus radicals are feeling pretty depressed ourselves.

Everyone at Knox defends discourse and free speech. An email from Dean Breitborde asked us not to disrupt the “free exchange of ideas.” But who gets to decide what that means?

Most social science majors know that discourse is shaped by power and privilege. But a lot of people around here seem to think that “discourse” exists in some kind of political vacuum. John Ashcroft is just some random schmuck with a different viewpoint and by golly, if we’re open-minded liberals then we ought to listen to him! I’ll never understand the liberal sentiment that being open-minded means politely holding your tongue while people perpetuate violence and oppression. Ashcroft’s viewpoint is not just different, it is bigoted, racist, and hateful. It is based on American superiority and the villification of foreigners. Furthermore, Ashcroft doesn’t just have a different viewpoint; he exercised the entire power of the US government and military to enact that twisted viewpoint on the lives of civilians and prisoners. This includes war crimes and other violations of civil and human rights such as jailing people without trial and torturing prisoners.

You cannot debate with John Ashcroft like you can with a Republican in your poli-sci class. The kind of discourse that many of you deem “civil” is not possible when there is such a gross imbalance of power between interested parties. The game is rigged in two ways: first of all, Ashcroft never has and never will be truly accountable to the people. In this country, discourse means showing up every four years to elect the lesser of two evils. If the government were really having a discourse with us, the war in Iraq would have ended years ago. But then again, that’s based on this silly little notion I have that, in a democracy, the government should do what the people ask.

If you’re not ready for my critique of the State, let’s narrow it down to the event itself. In introducing Ashcroft, the college Republicans claimed that the point was to have a real discussion about the future of America. I’m not that interested in a “discussion” where I have to forfeit my right to make statements about my opinion so that an authority figure can grace me with his lies—that is, if he (and the audience’s incessant shushing) doesn’t dismiss my question first. Maybe next time we have a guest, a Student Senate committee should pre-approve our questions.

The protesters here did nothing to prevent Ashcroft from speaking. Why, by the liberal definition, can Ashcroft only exercise his right to free speech if everyone else sits down and shuts up?

No doubt many liberals jeered, booed, or shushed other students because you were offended by their comments or actions. But how did you treat Ashcroft? Weren’t you offended when he said America was the superior nation? Weren’t you offended when he gloated about dropping the A-bomb on Japan? Weren’t you offended when he blatantly snubbed Graham Troyer-Joy (a.k.a. Ginger Extract) for asking a question about gay rights?

If you didn’t think it was “respectful” to shush Ashcroft for saying such hateful things, then why don’t the students you shushed deserve the same respect? Why does Ashcroft’s right to free speech take priority over ours? Why are you so quick to defend Ashcroft from disrespectful affronts, when what we are protesting is his blatant disrespect for human rights? This democracy was founded on the idea that it is a citizen’s right and duty to hold their government accountable. If you think confronting your government with its wrongs is disrespectful, then we might as well declare a dictator and call it a day.

The most hypocritical part of Ashcroft’s speech was that he claimed to uphold the human dignity of Americans by promoting measures that dehumanize others. He claimed to protect our civil rights through measures that actually destroy them. And here at Knox, we claim to protect free speech by telling protestors to shut up.

If we only engage our government in a discourse on their terms, nothing will ever change. Progress has never arisen without protest. Liberals, you claim to love justice and peace. If this is true, then you need to think about why someone standing up for your beliefs makes you so uncomfortable.

Ellen Vessels


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