Mia Lillis | Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Two weeks ago, a former student at Amherst College published a detailed account of her sexual assault and the administration’s subsequent failure to address her needs.
Within 24 hours, the president of the College released a statement outlining immediate changes to the College’s sexual assault policy.
This sequence of events reveals the palpable power of speech, a founding ideal of our nation. The American Civil War was fought in part to secure the freedom of speech in the political arena. Today, American citizens can voice political dissent, thanks to freedom of speech. Citizens residing in censorship-prone nations fight tooth and nail to secure the freedom of speech, to give voice to the truth. Even the ancient Greeks wrote tomes dedicated to the power of orators.
One would think, since we live in a country where even the Ku Klux Klan is given the freedom to voice their hateful ideology, we would take advantage of this precious right. But more often than not, we remain silent.
We offer many excuses for such silence. Sometime people choose silence to remain “polite.” Other times people choose silence because they believe their opinion to be a minority one, and fear social reprimand or isolation. And who can blame them, for in a majority-rules society, a minority voice doesn’t even matter, right?
Wrong. The amount of academia refuting this deterministic “majority-rules” mindset is overwhelming. On one level, society is largely familiar with the all-too-common phenomenon of the vocal minority and silent majority – the phenomenon that inspired the Progressive Student Association’s 4 to 5 Movement. But on an even deeper level, society must become aware of the mutability of opinion when faced with so much as a single dissenting voice. Social psychologist Serge Moscovici dedicated his life to studying the power of the minority voice.
Moscovici executed a revolutionary and often-replicated psychological experiment in which a substantial portion of a group of people chose obviously wrong answers to questions, simply because a clandestine confederate within the group spoke up in defense of the wrong answers. His findings indicated that having one single voice of dissent in a group of people can substantially change the viewpoints of other people within the group. If the minority voice can be that powerful when wrong, imagine how much more power it carries when right.
Despite this reassurance, some individuals may still choose to remain “politely” silent. They claim that it is better to “let it go” than to create conflict. But even this excuse is questionable. Our very own Kelsey Manning recently wrote an article for NextGen Journal discussing the damaging effect of derogatory language, especially in reference to the pervasive use of phrases such as “that’s so gay,” or “that’s so retarded” on our own campus.
Frequently, those who would experience the damaging effects of derogatory language, such as the young woman from Amherst, are not in a psychologically stable enough position to feel comfortable speaking out, and as a result such victims rely on allies.
But all too often, we remain silent when our peers use derogatory or damaging language, or make jokes we find distasteful. Certainly, our peers have the freedom to say whatsoever they choose, but we, too, have the freedom to speak up when we are insulted.
To speak up in response to insulting language is to create inception, to plant the idea that perhaps we ought to be mindful of language. And if you fear you may lose a friend by speaking up and, for example, expressing your distaste at their use of the word “retarded,” you must ask yourself if a friend who values his “freedom without criticism” (not a real freedom) to use a frankly uncreative slur over your friendship, is worth keeping as a friend.
Freedom of speech is internationally recognized as a basic human right. It may be the case that you completely disagree with the views I have presented in this column concerning the damaging effect of derogatory language, and if so, I encourage you to speak up. We as individuals learn and grow when faced with new perspectives. Alternatively, some of you may simply wish to use your freedom of speech to insult, and as Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But I, too, will not hesitate to use my freedom of speech to tell you exactly how I feel.
Mia Lillis is a junior political
science and philosophy major who is also pursuing a business-economics minor.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.