The marketplace of ideas

The Opinion editors do not decline to publish writers’ viewpoints merely because they might be deemed unpopular

Recently, we published a piece by one of our new Viewpoint writers, Ben Rudgley, entitled “End Women’s Studies,” which called for dissolving the Women, Gender, and Sexuality major at the University. To briefly summarize his argument: Rudgley contended that the existence of a department devoted to the study of such divisive issues is itself divisive, in that it largely fails to attract and include the very people who need exposure to WGS, and it distracts us from incorporating such ideas into our other studies. It was a controversial piece, and rightly so — Rudgley made a number of provocative claims. We’re not writing in response to the merits of his piece, however, and this is not the first time we have published controversial material.

What worries us as the Opinion editors of The Cavalier Daily is the claim many commenters have made — both on our website and in social media outlets — that we err in running such pieces at all. We have a lot to say about this claim, none of it positive, but let us state our thesis very clearly at the outset, before we defend it: we will never, under any circumstances, censor the opinions of our writers. Ever.

There are two conditions that warrant withholding or significantly modifying a piece: factual inaccuracies and libel. First, we make every effort to ensure that the Opinion pieces we run are factually accurate. This means if a writer makes a statement of fact which can be easily or reasonably verified, he or she must provide a source verifying this fact. Often, we hyperlink such fact-based claims on the website so that the reader can examine the source herself. Rudgley’s column contained, to our knowledge, no factually inaccurate information; this is largely because he made very few fact-based claims. Most of his argument relied on his perceptions, his observations and his reasoning — all of which one can disagree with, but none of which one can call “factually inaccurate.” Additionally, we have never run a column that baselessly or maliciously attacked another individual.

Second, and more importantly, the idea that we ought not to publish columns that some commenters consider clearly “uninformed” is problematic. Even if we are to assume that our most controversial columns were obviously and fundamentally flawed, we would still be remiss in censoring their publication. Censorship is, at its core, cowardice. The founder of our University articulates this better than we ever could: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” We ask those who ridicule our decision to publish pieces such as Rudgley’s — how do you expect to deconstruct misconceptions if they are not aired in public? The integrity of free speech rests on the cornerstone of retroactive response: we allow our writers to speak first, and then we speak back. We don’t withhold that speech in the first place.

We could stop there. But thus far we have been assuming that there is an objective standard by which one can determine another’s reasoning or perceptions are “misinformed.” Such an idea is also flawed. You can certainly believe that someone is misinformed; in fact, the writers of this current editorial all believe that Rudgley’s column was misinformed. But we as editors would never assume we were automatically right, nor would we actively silence viewpoints just because we believe they lack merit. Factual inaccuracy can be objectively confirmed and thereby prevented; skewed reasoning, on the whole, cannot be. So although we would firmly uphold our right to purposefully publish objectively misinformed opinions, we believe that the idea that something based on perceptions and logical reasoning could be “objectively misinformed” is itself a dangerous proposition.

Our writers courageously put forth their opinions with their names attached for all to see. They occasionally hold unpopular opinions and often expose biases in their own thinking. How many of us can honestly claim we hold no biased opinions? How many of us can claim we never express uninformed viewpoints or speak from a limited perspective? The Cavalier Daily writers are, like the rest of us, humans. They are not perfect, but they’re intelligent and brave. They’re fellow students who don’t deserve hate or abuse from anyone in our community. When we disagree with them — as we should, at times — we should do so openly and respectfully. There is no place in higher education for the vitriol and slander that have accompanied various columns on our website.

And this observation brings us to our final point, which one of our writers, Alex Yahanda, has also eloquently expressed: constructive dialogue. Commenters who either call for censorship of unpopular views or — worse — engage in unsophisticated, ad hominem attacks on our writers do nothing to prove the merit of their own opinions and do a great disservice to themselves and our community. Columns like Rudgley’s are in fact very useful to the community, no matter which side of the issue you support: they either voice an opinion that you hold but fear to express, or they illustrate fallacies that you can expose and dismantle in a public forum. You cannot engage in this type of productive debate, however, if we — the platform for such free speech — refuse to publish these articles, or if you resort to personal attacks while hiding behind the shroud of anonymity.

We invite our readers to comment on and share our articles. Open discourse and rigorous debate are the hallmarks of a healthy community. However, we will not tolerate the idea that unpopular or misinformed opinions should be censored. That’s a far more dangerous and absurd proposition than any of the viewpoints we have published in between our pages.

Russell Bogue and Ashley Spinks are Opinion Editors for The Cavalier Daily. Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily.


Published March 3, 2014 in Opinion





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