Letter to the Editor: David Nelson

Under the guise of diversity and protection of minorities, protesters at various U.S. campuses expressed pain at offensive speech and practices. Protests targeted racial insensitivity, cultural appropriation (fried chicken), even chalk vandalism by Trump supporters. I applaud them for expressing their beliefs. I, too, have been ridiculed for my religion, even for my ethnicity—from name-calling to denial of service. Such experiences are humiliating and shouldn’t happen to anyone. I support protest; like MLK, I hope that my “children…will not be judged by the color of their skin [or religion] but by the content of their character.”

I must withdraw support when protesters undermine constitutional rights. When they imperil free exchange of ideas through attempts to stifle offensiveness in order to create a “safe space,” diversity and tolerance becomes what it despises: intolerance and hatefulness. Unless speech threatens human life, it must be allowed, no matter how offensive. Controversial novelist Salman Rushdie stated, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Everyone’s civil rights are endangered even when bigoted views are silenced. The only solution is dialogue, not oppression.

That’s history’s purpose—history reminds us of evils perpetrated by the denial of the free exchange of ideas. Noam Chomsky reminds us that “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” Through the study of history, we foster an honest discussion of ideas, events, people, organizations—or we face oppression we thought was “in the past” or only happens elsewhere. University classrooms, and by extension, faculty offices where one-on-one discussion continues, must be protected spaces where divergent views—particularly those that offend—may be debated openly. As Supreme Court Justice William Douglas stated, “All education is a continuous dialogue – questions and answers that pursue every problem on the horizon. That is the essence of academic freedom.”

Even symbols like the Confederate flag cannot be banned or we face intellectual oppression. Symbols are imbued with different meanings for different people throughout history; what is offensive to one may be a symbol of identity for another. We must understand the nuances of such ideas and symbols; that requires exposure to opposing views and a climate fostering intellectual curiosity. Instead of intolerance or hurt feelings, we should engage in debate—we may at least cultivate uneasy tolerance if not respect. We should never be threatened with the possibility of official censure. If we are offended, we have every right to protest–but we also have the right to be offensive, too. To quote President Obama, “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day… and I will always defend their right to do so!”

I hope our community will avoid the contention seen on other campuses. Let’s uphold the Lutheran tradition of inquiry and debate through mutual respect.

-Dr. David Nelson
Associate Professor, History Department