Upcoming Free Speech Event at Carolina

NC Policy Watch reports that free-speech and self-censorship will be formally discussed at Carolina. “On Sept 13, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse will hold the university’s first student-centered discussion on the issue. ‘Can We Talk? Student Thoughts on Free Expression at UNC,’ was sparked by a series of surveys about free speech — surveys that themselves have become controversial.”

The NC Policy Watch piece shared a significant amount of the where we featured three video clips from Dr. William Sturkey.  The article  goes into significant detail on the issue and includes interviews with students who will share their perspectives on the panel.  Ironically, in a follow-up question, we had asked Dr. Sturkey to share his thoughts about how such talk of self-censorship is currently manifesting itself on campus and what possible solutions may be.

How is politicized rhetoric about speech and “self-censorship” manifesting itself on campus?

“…[O]ne of the things that I think this whole hysteria over free speech and indoctrination and self-censorship [amplified], that’s really…always been there, but it’s really picked up in the last six or seven years, one of the things I think this has done is convinced people who come in with a certain mindset to not take classes of a certain type or if taught by a certain type of faculty member.

I used to have more diverse political views in my classes when I first started here at UNC Chapel Hill. That has largely gone away. I think one of the things that the self-censorship and the free speech hysteria has done is it has …. convinced people–and it’s probably designed to do this—that {they] should not take a certain type of class. [They] shouldn’t take a class about the 1960s or a class about the civil rights movement. Even if [they’re] interested in those areas, [because] … the professor is of a certain identity. The professor might be young, or a woman, or black. And [they] don’t think that [they] could have a fair opportunity in that class because of all the hysteria that we’ve heard about self-censorship and free speech…. It’s actually pulling students out of those debates in the first place It’s making students ‘self-censor’ more… and making them more predisposed to believing that faculty and other students are going to come down on them….They might not take a class in the first place. They might not expose themselves to new ideas in the first place, because they’ve been preconditioned by these discussions that they will be attacked because of what they believe….But at the end of the day, what’s the solution? There’s no solution proposed.”

Dr. Sturkey ended his comments with  the words, “there’s no solution proposed”.  It now appears that at least one proposed solution is for students to talk about their “perceptions” in an upcoming panel discussion.

Talking, sharing and having open dialogue about issues is generally a very good thing.  However, in today’s highly charged political environment, one of the students interviewed by NC Policy Watch pointed out how diversity is being somewhat redefined and a new term “viewpoint diversity’ has grown in popularity.  We asked Dr. Sturkey to explain “viewpoint diversity”.

What is viewpoint diversity and why should we care?

“So, viewpoint diversity is a very sloppy term that really is just being repurposed for modern debates. Your viewpoint, your point of view is informed by any number of different things from where you grew up to the job that your parents did to your religion, to your race, whatever. That’s your point of view. That’s fine. Now, a lot of people are conflating that with your political identity. Okay. We live in this tribalistic world where you’re supposed to either be a Democrat or Republican. And it’s almost like you’re born that way. In a more healthy, functioning democracy, you would have a variety of different viewpoints, some of which resonated with Democratic policies, some of which resonated with Republican policies. And then ultimately you would, vote for the party that most closely reflected your own diverse viewpoints.

But now we’re seeing viewpoint diversity being used as being Republican or Democrat, as if we’re all just living in these two separate spheres. Right. So that if there are people that disagree about something, it must mean that they’re either Republican or Democrat. The fact of the matter is, is that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has more diverse viewpoints than any other organization or institution in the state of North Carolina, by far.

We have people that are born in Australia, in Ghana, in China, South Carolina, North Carolina, Montana, Alaska, where people are Native American, whatever … that might be. There’s no organization or institution in this state that can come remotely close to matching the diversity of views that we have at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And if there are any, then guess what? It’s NC State or UNCG or another institution of higher education. So, what the viewpoint diversity is being used, though, is to say it’s to say that we should have more “conservative” views. Right. If you accept the premise that we’re in these two different camps, that’s the argument that’s being made. Right, that we need to have more conservative views and that therefore that would protect viewpoint diversity.”

One of the potential dangers of so-called “viewpoint diversity” is that unproven assumptions and perspectives might be given the same weight as truth and facts.  Dr. Sturkey addressed this possibility.

How is campus life being impacted by so called “viewpoint diversity”?

“I think one of the dangers about so much of our political discourse leaking into university settings is that lies and truth are given the same space. …So, [for] a lot of people, even when you refute lies, they think that you’re just doing that because you have a political viewpoint or they think you’re doing that to attack their political viewpoint . And they feel… aggravated because you’ve refuted one of their lies.

For example, Donald Trump did not get more votes in the last presidential election than Joe Biden…and that’s just a fact. But if you say that in a classroom setting, then you’re perceived as being somebody who’s attacking someone’s political point of view. But that political point of view is based on a quantifiable lie.  So, [perhaps] another thing that … causes people to self-censor is maybe they know that these things can’t be backed up, or maybe they know they can’t go find the evidence….And at the end of the day, we need to go back to facts. And I think what happens is that people that don’t have facts just simply say: “well, that person is a liberal, Democrat, Republican, whatever, and that’s why they disagree with me, not because their argument holds merit, but because my side says one thing and their side says to the other. So, what we need is more people on the campus who say what I say, because that’s what I see on cable television or on the Internet or back in my family home.”

In the name of Lux Libertas, we are delighted that students are talking about the issues related to speech, debate and self-censorship at the upcoming event on September 13th.  It is our hope that, like the survey, such open dialogue will dispel some of the myths about politicization on campus that are driving ill-informed governance solutions that are harming our beloved Carolina.

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