Bret Stephens, a columnist at the New York Times, spoke on the importance of free speech and disagreement Thursday at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in a talk titled, “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort.” The talk, presented by Wallace House, was part of the “Speech and Inclusion: Recognizing Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement” series, which previously brought speakers such Joshua Johnson of NPR, and was put on by the University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
Stephens joined the New York Times in April 2017, having previously worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Jerusalem Post. A neoconservative and political commentator, he is a member of the “Never Trump” movement of conservatives opposing President Donald Trump.
Stephens began his talk speaking briefly about his past journalism experience. He discussed the effects of the 2016 election on free speech and went on to say both sides of the political spectrum were responsible for a decrease in ideological discussion.
“We are rapidly losing the ability to talk to one another,” Stephens said. “The president has led the way in modeling this uncivil style of discourse. But he has plenty of imitators on the left who are equally as eager to bully or shame Republicans into shutting up because they deem their ideas as backward or insufficiently ‘woke.’”
Stephens also belives hateful speech falls well within the scope of the First Amendment and sees banning speakers from university campuses as only fueling the controversial speakers’ movements.
“I think that the worst way of dealing with hateful speech is to try and shut it down,” Stephens said in an interview with The Daily prior to his talk. “The answer to hate speech is more speech. Hateful speakers thrive on controversy that some universities thoughtlessly afford them by trying to ban them. Censorship is oxygen to hate speech.”
He also commented on the impact social media has on journalism.
“Am I as a columnist no longer allowed to use irony as a rhetorical device, because there is always a risk that bigots and dimwits will take it the wrong way?” Stephens said. “Can I rely on context to make my point here, or must I lie in fear that any sentence can be lifted out of context and pasted onto Twitter and used against me?”
Stephens ended his talk asking the audience to make the choice to listen to others’ points of view.
“It isn’t, or is not nearly, so that we can hear ourselves or those who completely agree speak,” he said. “It’s also to hear other people, with other views, have to say. To hear such speech may make us uncomfortable, as well it should.”
The talk was followed by a question and answer session, with Stephens taking questions from audience members and over Twitter. Several students from the audience criticized his talk as hypocritical and questions ranged from critiques of Stephens’s op-ed piece on Woody Allen to questions about the future of the conservatism and the political right wing.
“I think part of an intelligent pedagogy, particularly at places like the University of Michigan, is to say, ‘Good, let’s talk about your offense,’” Stephens said in response to one Twitter question about why people are sensitive to opposing views. “Let’s take it another step further. Let’s turn offense into a conversation starter and not a conversation ender.”
Throughout the session, Stephens maintained uncomfortable discussion was essential for understanding different viewpoints, and emphasized accepting and understanding these viewpoints. This took on a similar perspective to Joshua Johnson's panel last Thursday.
“Discomfort is not injury, and intellectual provocation is not a physical assault,” Stephens said. “To hear speech with which we disagree may cause us to wince. But with time it can also sharpen our thinking, or even change our minds.”
After the talk, audience members continued to express opposing opinions regarding Stephens and the event.
LSA freshman Jason Higdon was one audience member who was opposed to having Stephens give this particular talk on campus.
“He and basically the rest of the conservative commentary on the Times, on WaPo, on any major newspaper, are just as bad as the conservative establishment that enabled them, in a sense,” Higdon said. “I just thought it wasn’t good to have someone like Bret Stephens here to lecture us on the necessity of ideological diversity.”
In an earlier interview with the Daily, Michigan Mellon Fellow Austin McCoy said he believes the free speech and inclusion series does not adequately combat Spencer's hateful rhetoric.
“It would be better if there were actual conversations about the resurgence of white supremacists or white nationalist politics and what that means for political culture, but also having a frank conversation about the intentions of people like Richard Spencer,” McCoy said.
On the other hand, LSA senior Ben Decatur felt it was important to have a conservative speak on campus about Trump.
“I think it was really important for students to hear on campus a conservative who is against Trump,” Decatur said. “I think he was incredibly smart and hit on important points of what conservatives need to do in the future in the age of Trump.”