Carol Quillen: Reframing the Free Speech versus Inclusivity Debate

At Davidson and across the country, conversations about campus culture start by juxtaposing “free speech” and “inclusivity”: these conversations assume that valuing free speech means allowing points of view that marginalize or disrespect some people, and that valuing inclusivity means outlawing some points of view so as to welcome all equitably into the community. 

Within this way of thinking, inclusivity and free speech will inevitably conflict. At some point, you have to choose. 

Images courtesy of Carol Quillen

I resist this way of thinking. First, to some people, it appears self-serving. Their reasoning goes like this: How can you, in the name of inclusivity, exclude some points of view from the get-go? Clearly inclusivity is not the value, political correctness is. You only want to include people who already agree with you. 

After this argument is presented, the conversation often ends in shouting or stony silence. No one learns much. There’s a more productive way to frame the issues. 

There’s a deeper reason to resist presuming an inevitable conflict between free speech and inclusivity; such a presumption ignores how these two things can go and have gone together. 

As historically white, male colleges and universities opened doors to previously excluded groups—including people of color, Jews, white women, undocumented students, and lower-income students—an institutional commitment to free speech enabled scholars from these groups and their allies to ask different, often scary questions and thus to develop new fields of study, new methodological approaches, and new curricula. 

Gender and sexuality studies, critical race studies, feminist economics, and other fields would not have emerged without the space afforded to brave scholars by the ideals of academic freedom and free speech. 

Our expanded use of crucial concepts like “diaspora,” “exile,” “nationalism,” “class,” “gender identity,” “disability,” and “human” developed in part because colleges and universities enabled challenges to inherited knowledge. And what “everyone” knew to be true and right turned out to be wrong. 

In other words, an ongoing institutional commitment to free speech and inquiry enabled efforts of scholars from previously excluded groups to challenge the status quo in ways that led to more inclusive communities and more accurate knowledge.

Similarly, museums and theatres with a commitment to free expression have, in the recent past, shown works that many people found offensive. Their commitment to showing such works in the face of widespread criticism and legal threats gave the broad public easier access to Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and even Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (once included in the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of the songs most objectionable to a parental watchdog group). 

I recall these facts here only to suggest that, as we confront our current context, we also might ask different questions, ones that challenge the idea that inclusivity and free speech will inevitably conflict. 

Under what circumstances can inclusivity and free speech mutually support one another? What would we as members of this community need to believe and do? What institutional structures and practices would we need to dismantle? 

And, as Jalin Jackson ’19 (“Should Free Speech or Davidson Whiteness Be Our Focus?” March 27th, 2019) powerfully reminds us, a single-minded focus on free speech derails the very questions that a genuine commitment to unfettered inquiry would enable. Jackson points the way by foregrounding whiteness and related lines of inquiry. 

Other questions might also emerge. How were Darwin’s ideas used to enable or underwrite racist public policies and what are the legacies of this? 

How does social contract theory shape our ideas about the family and potentially undermine gender equity? 

What particularizing attributes does our putatively universal definition of “human being” presume? 

How do these unexamined presumptions (and our lack of interest in uncovering them) perpetuate mechanisms of exclusion that undermine our efforts to build an inclusive community?  

We can’t pursue these and other urgent questions without talking about power—whose voice matters and why. And the more we pursue them, the more we’ll recognize a potentially surprising yet undeniable fact: any framing that begins by opposing free speech to inclusivity strengthens rather than challenges existing privilege and shores up the structures that perpetuate it. Ask yourself this: Who is served when everyone believes that free speech and inclusivity inevitably conflict? 

Contact Carol Quillen at caquillen@davidson.edu.

Comments are closed.