COLUMNS

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February 25, 2021

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8:42 p.m.

The Chicago Principles Keep Us Safe

Progressives and liberals on campus should be devoted to the cause of free speech.

I’m not a masochist. At least, I don’t think I am; I don’t enjoy pain, and I don’t seek it out. Like most people, I do my very best to avoid it. But I’ve got a confession to make: Sometimes, I willingly inflict it upon myself. And every night for the past four years, I forced myself to watch live coverage of each of Donald Trump’s many rallies. There’ve been hundreds, but they all share the same hallmark moments—deafening chants about walls and immigrants, tales of jobs stolen and inheritances robbed. It’s an uncomfortable and deeply disturbing experience, and it serves the sole purpose of making me hyperaware of how little some people feel I belong in this country—my country. Try as I might, I can never manage to desensitize myself to the sheer depravity of those rallies—they make me feel small, weak, and deeply unwanted, but I’ve watched them almost ritualistically since 2016, and I continued to do so up until the day Donald Trump left office for good.

It’s a habit seemingly incompatible with the very first sentence of this column. Who does that to themselves? (Over and over, no less.) Maybe not a masochist, but certainly a madman. But that’s not it at all. I watch those rallies because history is a cassette tape that’s been looping over itself for centuries. I watch them because January 6’s insurrection on the Capitol is merely a progression of 2017’s Charlottesville rally, the seeds of which were sown, half a world away, during 1923’s Beer Hall Putsch. I watch them because our country is the heir to a diseased legacy of hate, and to turn a blind eye to it by de-platforming those that champion it is tantamount to self-imposed revisionism.

That revisionism starts with the push to eliminate  the University’s Chicago principles, which have been the source of immense controversy for years now. Though I’ve spent less than two quarters on campus, even I can tell you with a reasonable degree of certainty that the debates surrounding them have grown neither less frequent nor less impassioned. At their most distilled, the principles are a reaffirmation of free speech: that anyone can say anything on campus, within reason, without fear of administrative response. It all seems dangerously laissez-faire, doesn’t it? We all know how damaging words can be, and—left unchecked—they have the potential to run rampant. A few weeks ago, a column published in The Maroon took aim at the Chicago principles, accusing the administration of using them to “legitimize and encourage…bigoted ideologies.” It was a compelling, insightful read, and it’s easy to see the appeal in its proposed eradication of the principles. I suppose it’s unsurprising that they’re as reviled by students as they’re revered by the administration, but—despite how attractive the prospect of diverging from the principles may be—it’s also one that I’m absolutely sure will prove lethal not only to our community but to our capacity to combat hatred as a whole. You can’t fight what you can’t see, and abandoning the principles forces us to wage a war against the invisible—something guaranteed to prove deadly.

When I think about the Chicago principles, I can’t help but remember an SNL sketch I watched a few years ago. It’s called “The Bubble,” and its entire premise is the construction of a (literal) bubble for the wokest of liberals to live in. I’d move there in a heartbeat, and so would a sizable portion of the College’s population. But we can’t—and that’s the entire point. The more we limit people like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on our campus or engaging with our community the easier it is for us to forget that they—and the millions of people enthralled by their words and convictions—actually exist. And then we find ourselves blindsided when hundreds of insurrectionists storm the Capitol with alarming levels of success. Those people are out there, and by “out there,” I’m not referring to some faraway land where Confederate flag prints are sold as wallpaper. By “out there,” I mean the quad, and Pret, and the Starbucks at Saieh Hall. They’re in the bottom-most corners of our Zoom classes—or, alternatively, at the very top, playing devil’s advocate while discussing The Prince. We see their bylines in The Chicago Thinker. In order to fight the good fight, and in order to fight it well, it’s essential that we keep what we’re struggling against firmly in our line of sight.

My defense of the principles might seem like apologism; it might seem like complacency. But the Chicago principles, and my support of them, are not tacit endorsements of hate speech. To me, free speech isn’t just significant as an inviolable right—no, it’s a reminder. A reminder that there will always be stadiums full of people who think my parents never should’ve immigrated here, that my being born in Philadelphia is no excuse for someone with my skin to have natural-born citizenship, and that some of my closest friends shouldn’t love the people they do. Only by confronting, challenging, and acknowledging the existence of bigotry can we better equip ourselves to combat it, because to ignore it would be to ignore the reality of the world we live in.

The past few months have illustrated the dangers of that ignorance. Apps like Parler—used to organize the Capitol insurrection, among other acts of domestic terror—sprang up in the wake of a push by social media giants to remove conspiracies like QAnon from their platforms. It might’ve seemed like a good decision at the time, but the notion that removing an idea from public view kills it is a misconception—and a fatal one. It just pushes that idea into spaces which radicalize it further, making it harder for us to monitor it. Parler, for instance, was created as a response to the perceived limitation of free speech, but it quickly mutated into fuel for a cancer that fed on itself and grew to massive proportions. Once you put destructive ideas in a positive feedback loop, the people behind them get pushed further down the rabbit hole of things like Nazism and fascism. If academia is all about confronting misconceptions and changing them, ignoring dangerous ideologies by nixing the Chicago principles is the intellectual equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. (I know it didn’t actually happen, but the expression still works—I promise.)

Here’s the worst part about stifling free speech on campus: It allows those being “stifled” to reverse the narrative. Suddenly, the straight white guy with a penchant for spitting vitriol becomes the victim of censorship—and that, as I’m sure we can all agree, is an issue. Because it’s that idea of victimhood that drove veterans to storm the government they once swore to defend, and it’s that sense of victimhood that contributed to the groundswell of anger that left a police officer at the Capitol dead on January 6. Actions have consequences, yes—but inaction does too. And the more we throw a blanket over things like radical domestic terror and xenophobia, or disinvite people like Steve Bannon from campus events, or ignore our peers who traffic in the same reckless ideas that the most dangerous people in our country do, the more ammunition we hand to the very movements we’re trying to defeat.

What I’m trying to get at is this: Free speech isn’t just useful because it’s a right. It’s useful because it forces us to confront the often-nauseating truth that scores of our neighbors, friends, family, professors, and peers are just diluted versions of the Capitol insurrectionists (or, worse yet, Senators Cruz and Hawley.) And the pen we strike the Chicago principles out with might well be the same one we use to sign our own death warrants. 

Ketan Sengupta is a first-year in the College.