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Table of Contents

The Academic Bill of Rights: Yea or Nay?

The Academic Bill of Rights - What is It?

It's My Right!...

Thelmo Resolution in Support of Civility, Free Speech and Dialogue

Is Tolerance Enough

If We Agree in Love

The Responsible Use of Freedom

Sticks and Stones...

What's Out There: Researching Academic Freedom

Alumni Accomplishments

The Kenya Connection

Laurentian Reviews

Table of Contents

The Responsible Use of Freedom
By Laura J. Rediehs

When we advocate freedom of expression, we are trying to protect the freedom to express our views and concerns honestly, without fear of punishment. Academic freedom protects the stance of educational institutions to play a watchful, critical role in society. These freedoms are not meant to indulge people in abusive venting, or to protect those who do this from having to deal with outraged responses to their outbursts. But because it is impossible to control how others express themselves without compromising these freedoms, there will be times when people express themselves in ways that others will find offensive.

The question then is whether we want to curb these freedoms by imposing controls over how people express themselves, or whether we want to preserve the full freedoms even at the risk that people will sometimes express themselves in ways that others find hurtful. While initially it may seem like a good idea to set rules of civil discourse in order to inhibit hurtful ways of expressing ideas, in practice, enforcing such rules without disrupting the discussion itself may be impossible.

In my observations of campus dialogues, I have seen that most people who criticize others’ modes of expression end up inhibiting the free exchange of ideas, whether that is their intention or not. People become so distracted by how the ideas were expressed that they forget to engage those ideas directly. True dialogue over the issues shuts down in favor of a new debate about the morality of each side’s manner of expression. For example, last spring’s controversy over a professor’s Web log became a lively controversy over academic freedom instead of an engaged dialogue over important issues concerning politics and race. All of the attention to the manner of communication diverted attention away from engaging the hard questions he had raised in his blog about racial stereotyping.

Since we cannot control how others express themselves no matter how hard we try, perhaps we should change the question. Instead of asking whether or not we should set and enforce rules of discourse, perhaps the more important question is how to keep good, engaged dialogue going even when people get upset. Debates over important issues will spark strong emotion, and this is not something bad. Strong emotion is a sign that people care.

In teaching peace-related courses in the First-Year Program, I have been most fascinated by the question of how peacemakers prepare themselves to walk straight into conflict unarmed. I have learned that even though we cannot control how others behave, we do have the power to change how we ourselves engage in dialogue, not only in how we express ourselves, but also in how we listen. If even one party in a dialogue practices both speaking and listening well, it is far more likely that the dialogue will go well—that both sides will learn from each other and move together toward better understanding and even some agreement about the issues that concern them.

What can one person do that can make a difference? If you concentrate on expressing your ideas clearly without resorting to name-calling or other kinds of verbal attacks, and without questioning the motives (or intelligence, or morality) of those with whom you disagree, your ideas are more likely to be heard and considered seriously. So, being careful about how you express yourself is one powerful way that you can make a difference.

The other kind of power we have in dialogue is the power of listening well. Even if the other person expresses himself or herself badly, it is still possible to discipline yourself to listen through the words to the real experiences, feelings, needs and ideas the person is trying to express, and then respond to those points instead of critiquing the person’s mode of communication.

Both of these ways of engaging well in dialogue help you to become a stronger person, capable of experiencing your own full range of emotions without being thrown by them. Cultivating a habit of looking for the good in others—and in yourself—in every interaction helps to draw out people’s goodness and creates possibilities for connection and problem-solving. It creates the conditions for the optimal freedom of expression, because ultimately what most inhibits freedom is fear. Approaching all dialogues with respectfulness builds the trust that counters this fear. Such dialogues become occasions of genuinely free expression.

Sticks and Stones…

Professor Redieh’s Three-Step Program for Responding to Verbal Attack

When you find yourself hurt and upset by what someone has said, ask if there is something you yourself can do that will help you to recover. Taking the following three steps can be enormously helpful, not only for yourself, but also for everyone involved.

Step 1:  Look again at the painful situation and try to find one place where the other person may have made a good point, or at least uttered an honest and understandable expression of his or her own pain.

Step 2:  Look again at the words or event and, this time, look for one place where what the person said or did hurt or offended you in a way that you feel is unjustified.  Try to clarify exactly what was misunderstood or misperceived regarding your own actions, words or intentions.  Just one example -- even if 99% of that episode was unjustified, pick the most important instance. 

Step 3:  If this wasn't really directly about you, forgive the person--you have clarified your own continued worthiness, so you may be ready now to move on. If this was about you, or for other reasons you feel it would be good to respond, plan your response carefully.  Should you write an e-mail, and if so, should it be public or private, and why?  Should you meet with the person one-on-one?  Should you invite a neutral party? Whether you respond in writing or in person, the nature of your response is clear--simply make the two points from steps 1 and 2, in order.

Since a meeting is usually the more challenging approach, let’s consider that scenario in some detail.  First, from step 1, affirm the good point that the person made, or acknowledge sympathy with the person’s pain.  It is important to realize that this step is about the other person, not about you.  This step has enormous power. It will make the other person feel much better and will take the edge off of his or her anger and begin to build trust.  You will no longer seen as the enemy.  People do want to be heard and understood -- especially those people who express themselves badly and hurtfully! 

Give the person a chance to respond, stay with him or her, listen sympathetically, and then, when the time is right, move on to your next point--what you learned from step 2.  Here, you say something like, “I felt hurt when you said..., because....” Use this as an opportunity to clarify your own good intentions.  Now this is about you.  Simply express your own pain (briefly), but mostly express what you were trying to do.  The point here is to correct the misperception of you on this one point, to offer reassurance that you are a good person trying to do the right thing.

Again, give the person time to respond.  If you've conducted the first part of the conversation well, the response may simply be an apology.  If instead it’s defensive, try to quell this by saying things like, “I’m just trying to help you understand where I’m coming from,” to shift the attention gently back onto you.

That's it.  Let go of all the rest.  End the conversation with grace and gratitude.  If follow-up is needed on other points of your disagreement, save it for another day.  If you have a third person present, that person's main job is to make sure that neither of you tries to push further at this point.  If more needs to be done, schedule a follow-up meeting; plan this one carefully too, to be as simple and focused as possible.

This process may not be easy, but it works.  Its power is that at the very least, it helps you to deal with your own pain and makes you a stronger person.  We cannot control most of what happens to us:  once it has happened, it has happened.  But we do have control over our responses, and this way of responding does amazing things. It helps us learn not to be so afraid of those who hurt us. It helps us become strong enough to acknowledge our own shortcomings without becoming self-destructive. And it helps us affirm our value and learn to express our own good intentions more clearly.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Laura Rediehs is a member of Faculty Council and a past member of the Spiritual and Religious Life Committee; she was one of the facilitators at the 2004 Laurentian Leadership Weekend forum on academic freedom and civil discourse