summer 2008 Edition
Text Size:

‘Deliciously Bewildering Dialectic’

“Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote more than 200 years ago. And with that thought in mind, President M. Lee Pelton commissioned a series of essays exploring freedom of expression — a tenet of both education and democracy, and one that has focused the attention of the campus community for the past year and a half.

By Rebecca Brant

Events on and off campus during the 2006–07 academic year spurred discussion about diversity and social justice and led to passionate debate about freedom of expression and limitations on that freedom. In a letter March 8 to the campus community, Pelton wrote, “There is no official position to be taken except to promote — rather than squelch — the deliciously bewildering dialectic we commonly refer to as the ‘teachable moment.’”

Such moments have been varied and plentiful, including the formation of a Council on Social Justice and Diversity; Salman Rushdie’s opening convocation speech last September; a campuswide forum hosted by Pelton in March; curricular offerings including those of the American Ethnic Studies program; awareness training and mentoring through programming in residence life, student life and human resources; an increased focus on the Lausanne program to bring faculty of color to campus; and an ongoing series of speakers and films.

Pelton invited faculty, staff and students to write essays, and the Dean’s Council solicited and selected 12 for publication in Campus Conversations: The Role of Freedom of Expression in a Multicultural and Democratic Society.

The book launch, March 7, featured Richard Meeker, Pulitzer Prize– winning publisher of Willamette Week, who cited the “transformative effect of educational institutions” in the debate over freedom of expression, and praised college students and other young people for “getting it when it comes to questions of race, multiculturalism and freedom of expression.”

The essay series will continue each year, Pelton says, explaining that “future editions will establish a historical record of the compelling vision of what we could be if we were truly open to what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best of what has been known and said in the world.’” The next series of essays, based on the question “Who is my neighbor?” will explore the relationship between the individual self and community — considered locally, nationally, globally — and what duties and rights apply in that relationship.

Following are excerpts from essays in the first collection.

W. Binford “We fail to appreciate that freedom of expression is just one democratic ideal that must be carefully balanced with myriad other democratic ideals such as equality and dignity.”

Warren Binford,
assistant professor of law, Clinical Law Program director

When Free Expression Gets Expensive: Legalities, Liabilities and Realities

Nathaniel “Nacho” Cordova“… Increasingly atherosclerotic notions of multiculturalism, diversity and freedom of expression … limit the rapprochement necessary to help us dispense with reified notions and move forward with an inclusive and just conception of plural community.”

Nathaniel “Nacho” Cordova,
assistant professor of rhetoric and media studies

Between Freedom of Speech and Cultural Diversity of Expression: Bureaucratizing the Multicultural Imagination

Sammy Basu“Citizens ought to allow the widest latitude to free expression, including artistic and humorous speech that is odd, evaluative, transgressive, and/or shocking, but find intolerable ‘fighting words’ that are targeted at and continue to be spoken even though they transmit direct injury.”

Sammy Basu,
associate professor of politics

“To try things themselves”: Freedom of Expression in a Democratic Multicultural Polity

Cassandra Farrin“When we hear the phrase ‘freedom of expression,’ we all too often focus on the person speaking rather than on the person who responds to him or her. In actuality, communication is a two-way process that is complex, dynamic and highly reliant on context.”

Cassandra Farrin,
interim director of community service learning, TIUA

Listening as Letting Go of Comfort and Embracing Difference: Responsibilities of the Listener in Freedom of Expression

Joseph Kaczmarek“Our society would benefit from a greater awareness of and respect for the difference between what we are allowed to do and what we ought to do.”

Joseph Kaczmarek ’07

The Difference Between Can and Should: Protection and Exercise of Free Speech in a Democracy

Peter Harmer“A deep commitment to critical thinking should provide members of the University community with the intellectual tools to withstand sometimes terrible assaults on their personal sensibilities that are a consequence of the free expression of others.”

Peter Harmer,
professor of exercise science

The Lion, the Scarecrow and the Looking-glass, Darkly: Misadventures in the War of the Worldviews

Christopher Hanson“Transgressive expression serves as the testing ground for free speech in America because the right of unfettered expression is only guaranteed by those willing to actually test boundaries.”

Christopher Hanson ’08

Speech that Offends: The Treatment of Transgressive Expression and Hate Speech in the United States

Shannon Lawless“If we refuse to be governed by our immediate and emotional reactions to … events, we may find value in expression that originally disgusted us, and danger in speech that initially seemed innocuous.”

Shannon Lawless ’07

Great Liberty, Greater Responsibility: Free Expression at Willamette University

Arminda Lathrop“Our identity development and understanding of self are closely tied to the way we perceive the boundaries of freedom of expression and react according to these boundaries.”

Arminda Lathrop,
communications director and project coordinator for International Debate Education Association (IDEA) at Willamette University

Expression and Identity: Collected Voices on “Freeing Space”

Douglas R. McGaughey“Freedom is at the core of what makes it possible for one to become human. Freedom distinguishes humanity from other species in degree if not kind. It is the capacity not to have to be satisfied with the world as it is but to imagine and initiate the shaping of the world as it can and should be.”

Douglas R. McGaughey,
professor of religious studies

Freedom of Expression

Tobias Menely“Open dialogue has often been described as a foundation of democratic society because it is in conversation, and not simply expression, that we test each other’s beliefs while noticing and becoming responsible for our differences [an examination of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello].”

Tobias Menely,
assistant professor of English

“Forgive me if I am forthright,” or Conversational Freedom

Rich Schmidt“Unfortunately, this right for which so many have struggled, fought and died is most often being used for celebrity gossip, message boards and reality shows. Important topics like race relations have been reduced to shouted slogans, overreaction and perceived slights.”

Rich Schmidt,
interlibrary loan and electronic reserves, Hatfield Library Censor This Essay

Copies of Campus Conversations are available at the Willamette Store for $10, and the essays as well as Pelton’s preface may be read online.