Miles Stephenson: In the spirit of American dialogue

Sunday, December 2, 2018 - 1:53pm

When one refers to “free speech,” what exactly do they mean? When should speech be completely free, unfettered by restriction? When should certain types of speech be censored, restricted or prohibited altogether? What does a healthy exchange of ideas look like? How is it regulated? Most important of all, who gets to decide the answers to these critical questions?

As freshmen at the University of Michigan, we must answer these questions for ourselves and our fellow students, and we must answer them soon. In just a few years, we will be the leaders of this campus and we will define the dynamic regarding the exchange of ideas at the University. Colleges were designed as crucibles of intellectual debate, influential enough to inform entire generations of the cultural, social and political norms. One of the most important debates on campuses right now is free speech and its relationship with political dialogue. Since the 2016 presidential election, political polarization seems to be skyrocketing, and regardless of the statistics behind this, Americans believe we are divided now more than ever.

On every talk show and podcast across the country, partisan mouthpieces shout across the aisle for political supremacy, but it only leads us further to democratic instability. Now, the problem is mutating more intensely in the age of subscription-based media streaming when an individual can design their own echo chamber to insulate themselves within an ideology, never to be exposed to the opposing viewpoint. What is the solution to this breakdown of proper dialogue on our campuses and across our country? Media and the partisan games of the political parties are certainly at fault. But what can we do as average Americans? Recently, two Americans took a step in the right direction, and it all happened on “Saturday Night Live”.

The story begins Nov. 3, when comedian Pete Davidson joked about the appearance of Dan Crenshaw, the U.S. representative-elect of Texas’ 2nd district, during the Weekend Update segment. After mocking the veteran’s eyepatch, likening him to a hitman in a porn film, he concluded his joke with the line, “I know he lost his eye in war … or whatever.” This comment sparked debate online in a rather formulaic way. Both political sides developed their own accounts of the events and then these two accounts fragmented and further radicalized in colonies of echo chambers across the internet. Fueled by outrage culture, many of the offended party demanded SNL fire Davidson and issue an apology. But seven days later, on the same SNL segment, the country was met with a surprising spectacle.

“I made a poor choice last week,” Pete Davidson said, opening the segment. “I made a joke about Lt. Cmdr. Dan Crenshaw … and on behalf of the show and myself, I apologize … I mean this from the bottom of my heart, it was a poor choice of words. The man is a war hero, and he deserves all the respect in the world.” Then the representative-elect himself moved into the frame. After getting his fair share of jokes on Davidson to even the score, Crenshaw addressed the audience. “Okay but seriously, there’s a lot of lessons to learn here … Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.” He continues, emphasizing the importance of Americans connecting with veterans in their life and dissolving that invisible civilian/veteran border over Veterans Day Weekend. “We will never forget those we lost on 9/11, heroes like Pete’s father (who was killed as a responding firefighter in 9/11),” Crenshaw concluded. Americans who had tuned in expecting a polarized shouting match witnessed a unique moment of peace and humility in the political realm.

Davidson, a sarcastic comedian popular for defining the “scumbro” menswear trend, apologized to a war veteran, used the phrase “from the bottom of my heart,” and admitted he was wrong. Really? Meanwhile, a Republican representative-elect met with the man who ridiculed him for a disability he received from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, shook his hand and gave words of respect to his late father. Was this really the politically polarized world of 2018 we’ve heard so much about? Where was the name-calling and partisanship? The lesson I took from this was no matter how morally abhorrent a comment might be, outrage only leads us further into chaos, while a respectful dialogue can catch the attention of millions and take a step in the right direction.

Crenshaw could have refused to attend SNL altogether — it was a busy Veterans Day Weekend for him. Davidson didn’t have to apologize. He’s a comedian, an occupation set on pushing boundaries and going where few are comfortable to go. But both of these Americans put their differences aside, embraced their humility and met in front of the country in favor of mutual respect and unity. Crenshaw never asked to silence Davidson, to take away his free speech or the platform from which he spread these ideas. Instead he met with him, shared a few jokes and tilted the conversation into a positive message. That is the power of free speech. This interaction perfectly captures the utility this kind of speech has in healing political polarization in America, and it speaks to the beauty of a society where people can share their ideas openly, be met with disagreement and then reflect and strive for a greater idea. Without free speech, this process can never be attained. Instead, Davidson would have been silenced by a kangaroo court of outraged actors, Crenshaw and he would have never met, and the country would witness one fewer act of unity.

I ask you all to think about experiences like these as we inherit the responsibility of maintaining the University’s exchange of ideas. It will take effort to find the perfect balance for the University — one where students are enlivened and free to speak their minds — but it is possible, and when it happens, every person on campus will benefit from these ideas.

 

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.

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