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Response to “Free Speech on College Campuses”

I am writing this article in response to what someone wrote in last week’s issue, where it was claimed that colleges should host controversial speakers. Although I will admit that this article was good and well thought-out, I must disagree with the conclusion because the author made a fundamental mistake. The article argues that colleges should host controversial speakers because these speakers have the right to freedom of speech. What the author failed to realize is the question is not, “Should so-and-so be allowed to use his or her rights in this way?” Rather it is, “Should we help so-and-so use his or her rights in this way? “The answer to the former is always affirmative by the definition of what a right is; the latter is the much subtler question of what obligations do I have in order to respect another’s rights.
Obligations come in two forms: negative and positive. Negative obligations require that the person or institution not interfere in the expression of a right, and positive obligations require that the person or institution perform actions to assist in the expression of a right. Freedom of speech entails the negative obligation to allow someone to express an opinion, but does not entail the positive obligation to give resources to enable that expression. In other words, although you have a right to your opinion, I do not have to help you spread it. Similarly, although you have a right to buy cigarettes, I do not have to drive you to the store.
Now that it is clear that colleges can refuse to host certain speakers, the obvious question is whom should colleges allow to speak. Aristotle claimed that there were three methods of  persuasion: appeals to emotions, to credibility, and to logic (which are pathos, ethos, and logos, respectively). According to Professor Jeanne Fahnestock of the University of Maryland, the most common use of pathos is claiming the audience and the speaker have a shared identity, which then allows the speaker to, “exploit common biases; we naturally bend in the direction of what is advantageous to… the interests of any group we believe ourselves a part of.” A direct result of establishing a collective identity is that it creates an “other,” which is a philosophical term meaning anything different from yourself–Greeks vs. barbarians in classical times, Christians vs. Pagans in the Medieval period, civilized vs. savages in the Age of Imperialism, Whites vs. Blacks in early-1900s America, the pure race vs. subhumans in World War II Germany, citizens vs. refugees in Brexit’s United Kingdom, Americans vs. immigrants in Trump’s America. When someone uses pathos to persuade others, the result is the us-vs-them mentality that has resulted in more atrocities than anything else in human history. Why should any institution help a speaker who relies on pathos?
Ethos usually relies either on overwhelming the audience with the speaker’s prestige, which is called appeal to authority, or discrediting the opposition with insults, which is called ad hominem. A perfect example of ethos being used to persuade a vast number of people is that most people support the equation E = MC2 even though they have no idea what it means. The simple fact that Albert Einstein said it is enough to convince them. Getting  back to the topic at hand, the relationship between allowing controversial speakers and ethos is best demonstrated by Smith Johnson. He explained  while  giving  testimony to the Senate on the best strategies America can use to discredit Al-Qaeda propaganda, “I am literally not a real person and was made up by Elias Tamarkin, the author of this very article, in order to prove a point.” Go back and reread that last sentence. Really look at it and try to find anything odd, apart from the obvious. Did you notice the credential I provided  for this fictional character was that he was speaking before the Senate? In other words, I used the fact that a well-respected institution allowed someone to speak as proof that he is knowledgeable in the subject and deserves to be listened to.
Although a college may not be on the same level as the Senate, the concept still applies, which means that when a college gives someone a platform to speak, they are giving that person an endorsement. A speaker does not even need to make an argument from ethos because the very fact that the college is hosting him or her is itself an argument from ethos. The last mode of persuasion is logos: facts, statistics, research, logical deduction, testimonies, reasoning, causality, analogies. That is logos. That is why we, as students, are willing to take thousands of dollars in loans in order to come to the great institution of the University of Massachusetts Boston. That is the type of argument the author of the article I am responding to was thinking of when they wrote, “[T]he occurrence of discussion that disagrees vastly in thought progresses a society.” Colleges have the right to choose who will and will not appear as guest speakers and have a duty to exercise that right in order only to let speakers who use logos in their arguments, otherwise they would be sponsoring those who use pathos, people who do not deserve any association with an institution of education.