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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Turning Point Controversy

Associated Student Government

Associated Student Government

Human dignity is the best starting point

David DeCosse

David DeCosse is director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

In the last days, Santa Clara University (SCU) has gained national attention for a regrettable reason: SCU’s undergraduate Student Senate decision to deny official campus status to a chapter of the national conservative group Turning Point USA.

I respectfully disagree with the Student Senate’s decision and base my disagreement on notions of human dignity and freedom of speech at the heart of the Jesuit tradition of the university.

But the case is not a simple one and the Student Senate deserves respect for grappling with some technical and tough matters. On the technical side, the student government by-laws disfavor sponsorship of duplicate student groups, not on the grounds of limiting speech but on the grounds of fairly sharing limited resources. SCU already has Republican and libertarian student groups. Some senators reasonably thought: How is Turning Point USA different from these groups?

The senators also demonstrated laudable leadership in considering the Turning Point application in light of the tough, threatening context of the last four months at the university. During that time, swastikas and anti-gay graffiti have been scrawled on a dormitory wall; an exhibit dedicated to remembering 43 disappeared Mexican college students has been defaced; and white supremacist flyers have been posted twice on campus. Turning Point USA had nothing to do with these incidents. But each incident revealed a threatening permissiveness creeping onto campus.

Hovering over this is a national climate that increasingly winks at such contemptuous expression and in which the reigning conservative movement is led by a president who is an habitual liar (see, among other things, inaugural photos; claims of voter fraud; and his years-long leadership of the birther movement). Moreover, Turning Point USA is the founder of the national Professor Watch List, which identifies faculty around the country thought to be biased against a conservative viewpoint; the list has also been used (not by Turning Point themselves) to harass and threaten a number of faculty and their families. At the Student Senate hearing, the Turning Points USA student members said that they intended to participate in the Professor Watch List at SCU but not to seek to have any faculty fired on account of an accusation of bias. The group also stated that it had no interest in bringing to campus the controversial Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulus.

It’s time for conservative groups like Turning Point USA to get real about this local and national context, which is deeply threatening both to those targeted and to whole communities as well. The conservative movement in the US demands free speech but often uses such speech to perpetuate hugely consequential falsehoods; or to harass minorities; or to unleash an abusive online mob of trolls. Here the freedom at the heart of freedom of speech has been displaced. Freedom becomes a cover to twist the truth in any way you’d like. It’s not freedom connected to responsibility which, until recently, was the honorable hallmark of almost all American conservative thought. Conservative groups today need to recover this spirit of responsibility in challenging leaders telling known falsehoods and denouncing abusive hangers-on driving speech into dark spaces.

But however problematic the local or national context has been, it is still the case that Turning Points USA should not have been denied official status – and especially not denied that status because, as one student senator put it, it was important to “draw the line between free speech and hate speech.”

I think the Senate’s mistake can be attributed in conceptual terms to a reliance on a problematic postmodern notion of identity that has become detached from the more fundamental underlying category of human dignity. This postmodern notion, evident at SCU and at many other campuses, is more interested in liberation from oppression than it is in the freedom and responsibility associated with human dignity. Moreover, this postmodern view often reduces language to being little more than a “discursive strategy” in the ongoing power struggle between oppressor and the oppressed. Take the now-common phrase “micro-aggression,” which refers to the subtle, sometimes unintentional, slights and snubs that may betray prejudice. With its identification of speech and actual physical force (i.e., speech as an aggressor), the term reflects this problematic and reductionist understanding of speech and politics. If many conservatives today detach freedom from responsibility, many on the postmodern left are suspicious of freedom at all.

But if we start with the human dignity of all persons, we end up in a much better place. The Declaration on Religious Freedom from the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church provides a helpful starting point. It says: “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all [men and women] should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.”

Here two key claims are being made. One is that by nature all human beings are disposed to seek truth (even if they don’t always follow this disposition). The other is that such seeking ought to be respected in a manner consistent with human dignity, which is understood as the possession of reason and free will and thus of the privilege to bear personal responsibility. These are not only important grounds for thinking about the basis of the human right to religious freedom. They are also good starting points for considering the purpose of education at a Jesuit university: To assist each student in his or her search for truth in a manner consistent with that person’s dignity.

How might such a notion of dignity be correlated with freedom of speech? Here the moral philosopher Charles Taylor’s discussion of language can help. He argues that without speech – and without the freedom to speak – it is not possible for individuals or communities to recognize and formulate the true and the good that become their basis for a stance in the world. Taylor’s thought provides an ethical justification for the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

To be sure, there was a difficult context to be considered in assessing the application of Turning Point USA for official student status. But the SCU Student Senate decision to deny the application was a violation of the dignity of the students in the Turning Point group. The freedom and responsibility of such students should be respected in their search for truth, a search intrinsically connected to their capacity to speak freely. Moreover, by allowing the freedom of such a group to speak on campus, the entire university opens itself up to the possibility of deepening its own understanding of the true and the good. In these challenging times, the university must defend the freedom of speech and cultivate its responsible use.

Feb 13, 2017

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