Free Speech Is Far From Thriving at UChicago

Contrary to what Jack Votava believes, the backlash against Evita Duffy’s whiteboard reveals something alarming about free speech on campus.

By Matthew Pinna

We’ve all experienced that moment when, as we stare slack-jawed in horror at the sheer number of pages we have to read by 9:30 a.m. (“Who even makes books this long?”), we begin to think to ourselves: “I could totally skip this and just wing it in discussion tomorrow.”

In a tragic twist of fate, Jack Votava’s recent op-ed, “IOP Controversy Shows Free Speech Is Thriving at UChicago,” showcases an example of that logic going completely wrong; as I looked at his article, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had even read what Evita Duffy had written.

Duffy detailed the attacks levied against her in her op-ed, including “threats of violence” and comparisons to animals, but Votava dismissed these as “derision, mockery, and satire,” mere elements of “an active discursive culture.” No, she wasn’t upset over being told by someone online that she deserves “a brick wall,” as Votava suggests. Instead, she apparently just wanted “recognition of the legitimacy of [her] beliefs.”

And was she truly upset? Of course not, Votava explained. The paragraphs Duffy spent describing how such threats made her fearful on her own campus were nothing more than “highly disingenuous” lies, simply a knee-jerk product of the “bruised egos” that come with “real free speech.”

Finally, demonstrating a true masterclass on rhetorical straw-manning, Votava latched onto a single sentence of Duffy’s op-ed: “It is not hard to imagine what sort of actions they [the administration] would be taking if an LGBTQ+ or Muslim student faced similar threats or experienced this sort of intolerance on campus.”

Aha! A conservative mentioned minorities, so therefore their entire op-ed must be bigoted! “This disturbing false equivalence,” he writes, “exposes the heart of the conservative argument and how vapid it really is.”

One doesn’t need to later quote a philosopher as he did, however, to break down what Duffy’s line really meant. What that small snippet of her broader argument boiled down to was: These students would have been protected from threats—why haven’t I? It wasn’t a desperate equivocation of the exact struggles of a conservative to that of a minority, but instead, an attempt to point out that a threat should be seen as a threat, regardless of whom it’s directed toward.

In order to disagree with what Duffy wrote, a critic would thus have to adopt one of two stances: either that she deserved to be threatened or that she wasn’t threatened in the first place. Respectively, then, that critic would either be completely insensitive or unable to read what Duffy explicitly wrote in her op-ed.

The benefit of the doubt demands that Votava not be a jerk. However, it leaves us with no other option but to question his reading skills. Another example of such a failing comes as he outlines the aforementioned “disturbing false equivalence.” He plainly states that a threat against minorities “degrades these students’ humanity and demeans fundamental aspects of their identity.” For Evita, though, he reduces her experiences to “belittling recognition,” somehow overlooking that telling someone they deserve a brick wall, for one, isn’t quite teasing.

This is entirely different from telling someone that they are drawing a false equivalence between their experiences and those of a minority; Votava’s argument is an outright denial that Duffy’s experiences occurred. In short, even if you’re inclined to think as he did—that one’s “core identities” are on a greater plane than one’s political identity—his whole op-ed must be recognized as missing the greater point that Duffy was threatened, which I hope no decent student would encourage.

Hopefully by accident, Votava ignored the entirety of Duffy’s op-ed and the trauma that came with it for the salivating opportunity to call a conservative a hypocritical “victim.” Not only was his op-ed factually incorrect, but it was also extremely inappropriate and patronizing for both Duffy and anyone else who has found themselves in a similar position.

As someone who has been told that they deserve to die more times than a pack of cats has lives, I always find it particularly funny when someone insinuates I or someone else can’t tell the difference between an argument and a threat.

It becomes downright comical, even, when they suddenly decide to become a paragon of free speech for the sole purpose of telling a student that they should effectively suck it up and take their death threats like an adult. Conservative snowflakes, am I right?

Votava’s op-ed is far beneath the standard for “political discourse” that he so praised in his writing. All he did was prove his own prejudice and show how free speech on this campus still needs more work before it can accurately be called “thriving.”

Matthew Pinna is a third-year in the College.