The vast majority of students at the College avoid talking about controversial topics rather than deal with the potential backlash. I completely understand why: This issue is not new. Generations of engaged citizens in the U.S. have struggled to delineate which types of speech are considered acceptable. As values and context have shifted, the boundaries of acceptable speech have, with good reason, shifted too. For four years, I have watched our community struggle with this ongoing process with great interest and dissatisfaction. Advocates on both sides of the “free speech” debate have invariably missed the mark and failed to adopt any coherent standard by which to distinguish acceptable from inadmissible speech. The recent College Council (CC) decision on the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) is a particularly painful example of the way judgement around “free speech” at Williams has lost its sense.
Last Tuesday, CC voted 13–8 against recognizing WIFI as a registered student organization. The vote came after nearly two hours of heated debate, mostly between guests. This is the first time that a club satisfying CC bylaws has been rejected in institutional memory for at least 10 years. CC has not released an official statement explaining its decision, but everyone at the meeting seems to agree that WIFI’s application was rejected because of political concerns rather than CC bylaw requirements. The full limit of WIFI’s official stance is that they support Israel’s right to exist, though their members have verbally expressed other “pro-Israel” sentiments. Since the decision last week, the story has been picked up by multiple national news outlets and blogs.
What are the actual consequences of this decision? The group will still exist on campus, albeit without CC funding. The real consequences are social and ideological: the representatives of the student body are invalidating WIFI’s perspective. They are saying that, in on-campus discussions regarding Israel, WIFI doesn’t deserve a seat at the table. So, if CC will be an active arbiter of campus opinions, how should they decide what perspectives qualify as valid?
Many self-styled defenders of “free speech” have argued that all speech must be permitted. This is definitely the wrong standard for Williams. It’s a waste of our students’ time to rehash settled arguments. John Derbyshire can be a white supremacist on Twitter, but his perspective is too fringe and hateful to be productive or educational on our campus.
On the other hand, those framing themselves as “advocates against hate speech” have sought to silence all speech perceived as a source or defense of harm. This gets problematic, too. “Harm” can serve as a convenient, if well-intentioned, blanket term. If overused, this word can marry compassion and intolerance. We’ve all seen it: the scope of perspectives that anti-hate-speech proponents judge to be “not harmful” has been shrinking.
It’s easy to criticize these attempts to define acceptable speech but much harder to come up with better alternatives. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. We should be suspicious of anyone who acts too sure of themselves about what counts as acceptable. But I do know that, while we should not permit all speech, we have a moral imperative to confront ideas if they are not bluntly hateful and are widely held. Why? Because these ideas will not die quietly. Ideas that reasonably claim logical underpinnings and have sufficient traction will not disappear of their own accord. Their proponents must be engaged and converted until the ideas themselves are marginalized. The solution to widely held ideas we disagree with is not suppression – it is discourse.
WIFI was just founded this semester, so they’re still working out the nuances of their stance on Israel. But talk to anyone in the group and you will know their intentions are nowhere near bluntly hateful. We are talking about thoughtful Williams College students here, not John Derbyshire. We also know that WIFI is basically “pro-Israel,” and strains of the pro-Israel argument are undoubtedly widely held in our country today. The United States Congress almost unanimously supports Israel’s right to exist. According to Pew in 2018, across the US general public, almost three times as many people support Israel than support Palestine. AIPAC, a pro-Israel group, is one of the most powerful political lobbies in the world. It may not be right, but this is the reality of the conversation outside of Williams, and it is our responsibility to ensure we are ready for that debate when we leave. While we can and should take steps to ensure conversations happen safely, it is no help to shelter students from exposure to such mainstream perspectives.
It is easy to make emotionally satisfying decisions about such controversial topics, and the natural reaction of compassionate students is to shut down potentially harmful perspectives. If we want to make real change, though, we cannot be so reactive. As a community, we need to face controversial mainstream topics, not silence them. College Council: Register WIFI. Let the conversation happen.
Mack Radin ’19 is an English and economics major from Los Altos Hills, Calif.