There’s a reason why the 12 boxes on this page are blank, and I’ll get to that. But first, a few words about what’s been filling the boxes on the opposite page. Over the past few months, the Daily and its editors have seen intense criticism for printing several editorial cartoons that student leaders in some minority communities have found racist, demeaning or otherwise offensive.
The most controversial of these cartoons portrayed a high school classroom full of dark-skinned students and one white student. At the front of the classroom, a black teacher tells the class that they can all expect special preferences when applying to college – except for Bob, the lone white student.
Implicit in the drawing is a blunt and emotionally powerful argument against race-conscious admissions policies: that they unfairly discriminate against whites.
It’s not a nuanced argument, and it’s one that I happen to disagree with. But it certainly reflects a mainstream opinion, and one that about half of Michigan voters hold. As a submission to the editorial page – a forum meant for public debate of important issues from all sides – it was perfectly appropriate.
To be sure, the cartoon caused offense. It simplified the issue of racial preferences, and to some black students, it felt like an accusation that they didn’t earn their way into the University.
But being offended is part of living and participating in a liberal and pluralistic society. When we’re all free to express ourselves, we will all come across expression that offends our sensibilities. Besides, when a common but faulty argument appears on an editorial page, it provides the opportunity for a rebuttal – a chance to change minds.
Not everyone felt that way. Student leaders, arguing that the cartoon was “objectively racist,” demanded retractions and printed apologies. Later, a committee of the University’s faculty senate even argued that it was potentially illegal – that the caricature of “an institutional policy favoring diversity” could, by encouraging a “racially hostile learning environment,” violate federal equal-protection laws.
In other words, if you have qualms about affirmative action, keep quiet – we know we’re right, your views are offensive, and it’s wrong for you to express them.
This is the sort of well-intentioned, but deeply illiberal thinking that brought us campus speech codes in the late 1980s, when a student on this campus faced a disciplinary hearing for saying he considered homosexuality a curable disease. It’s the same attitude that led Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences to depose Lawrence Summers after he hypothesized – at an academic conference, of all places – that genetic differences could account for gender inequality in certain fields. The mentality that an important truth can be unquestionable, and that those who think otherwise should be punished.
It’s also strikingly similar to the reasoning that has recently led Muslim extremists to riot, burn and kill in response to an act of blasphemy.
One of the pillars of liberal society is that people are free to openly believe in or criticize any religion without fear of reprisal. To understand the Danish cartoon controversy, we must realize that for the Danes and some other Europeans, this basic principle is in real peril. When the Jyllands-Posten dared a slew of cartoonists to draw the Prophet Muhammad last September, the possibility of violent retaliation by Muslim extremists was very real; a Dutch filmmaker had been killed and a Danish lecturer had been assaulted for offending radical Muslims. Recent reports indicate that all 12 cartoonists are now in hiding, fearful for their lives.
Thankfully, expressing an idea in this country will rarely put us in physical danger. But intimidation doesn’t have to be violent. For the past few decades, public debate in American society, and especially academia, has suffered under what some call a “culture of offense.”
Under the rules of this culture, if nearly anything offends you, you are entitled to demand it be taken back. In some countries of similar attitudes, there are laws against holding certain opinions; witness Austria, where the revisionist historian David Irving is going to prison for his lunatic view that the Jewish Holocaust didn’t happen.
The First Amendment is hard to get around, though, so in America we have activists and sensitive citizens to enforce the rules. People with unpopular or unconventional opinions on religion and especially race are better off avoiding the topics in public.
In the same category are people who are prone to saying things without thinking them through. There are no thoughtless mistakes, just racist people.
The culture I’m talking about makes it nearly impossible for people to honestly debate sensitive issues in public. That’s counterproductive. Since the Enlightenment, liberal Western societies have resolved disputes and questions through open discussion. If an idea – that Islam is a violent religion, that genetics might account for differences in gender equality, that affirmative action does more harm than good then rational argument or science will prove it wrong. If we as a society want to discredit patently false ideas like Irving’s, destroying his arguments in the open is a far better option than silencing him with prison. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant.
If real, open discussion doesn’t happen in public and in academia, then people who hold misguided views will never be proven wrong or change their minds; most will simply shut up or seek like-minded people to share their opinions.
In many ways, this campus provides a fine example of the worst consequences of rigid multiculturalism and identity politics. Too often, what we call “dialogue” on issues like race is closer to preaching. Our education on diversity is mostly limited to reverence of multiculturalism and learning to spot stereotypes; few come away knowing how to engage those who don’t agree or don’t understand. Maybe that’s because the University was until recently in the habit of threatening those people with suspension under its speech code. The effect of all this seems to be a campus that is shamefully self-segregated and too nervous to talk about it.
This is why progressives, especially on this campus, should realize that their goals are best served by putting the politics of offense behind them and embracing liberalism. If an idea upsets you, rather than attacking it as offensive, try to prove it wrong. It won’t always be comfortable; it shouldn’t be.
In the interest of free debate, the Daily will continue to print cartoons that may occasionally offend you. That’s an inevitable part of being a newspaper, and a campus newspaper especially should be a place where ideas are exchanged freely. It would be much easier for us to simply pull all cartoons that are potentially offensive, but we would be doing the campus a disservice.
That’s not to say the Daily or anyone else should cause offense for no reason. We chose not to reprint the Jyllands-Posten cartoons on this page because we felt the shock of the images — whether it comes from the actual content or the symbolism they carry — would overwhelm the message.
And if I’m wrong — well, prove it.
Fresard is the Daily’s editor in chief.
He can be reached at