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Rhetoric of Reasonableness

Source | LinkedIn : By Phyllis Wise

Recently the University of Illinois was honored to host Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on our campus. Her talk got me thinking again about the challenges of being a leader in this “age of rage.”

 The moderator asked Justice Sotomayor how she got along with her colleagues, given the often deep ideological differences between them. It helped, she said, that she and her colleagues argue face to face. That observation resonated deeply with me. The members of the Supreme Court don’t call each other names, even when they disagree. They use facts and reason, not emotion and yelling. And they do not hide behind anonymity. 

It made me realize that in these days of politicians speaking crudely instead of substantively, of social media trolls verbally threatening women for speaking out, and of hate groups dominating social media, people often feel like they can say anything they want in as harsh a language as they desire.

And yet, this kind of language has consequences. We as a society have been overcome with inflammatory language. We have lost sight of the fact that, with freedom of expression comes responsibilities. Within the university, certainly, it is critical that views, no matter how controversial, are presented in a way thatenhance learning. There is a difference between offensive speech, which is protected, and threatening speech, which I believe is not. We accept or at least tolerate speech that makes us uncomfortable but that is different from harassment or intimidation.

 “If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding,” wrote the late C. Vann Woodward, Yale University’s Sterling Professor of History and author of that institution’s freedom of speech policies. “Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly,” he wrote. “No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion, or sex.”

Gender identity would, of course, now be added to that list.

When Yale’s President, Peter Salovey, discussed Woodward’s words in a 2014 speech, he said, “A bedrock commitment to free expression does not give one the right to voice hatred and bigotry without considering whether that expression serves the highest purposes: advancing knowledge and promoting deeper understanding.”

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