Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Free Listening or Why The Free Speech Bogeymen Exist
This week Dean John (Jay) Ellison of the University of Chicago sent a letter to all incoming University of Chicago Freshman. The letter offers a bold defense of academic freedom, “one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”
Ellison’s decision to inform incoming University students about the importance of free speech is praiseworthy. He also rightly explains that free speech is not absolute, writing that “Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.” This claim is legally and morally correct. It offers a principled defense of free speech with an awareness of the limits on uncivil, harassing, and threatening speech. Ellison succinctly informs students that academic and political freedoms depend on encountering contradictory and opposed ideas, limited, of course, by concerns of outright harassment and calls to violence. None of this is controversial, or at least it should not be.
But Ellison’s letter has unleashed a controversy by stating clearly that the limits on free speech for harassing and threatening speech do not mean that we should impose formal “trigger warnings,” cancel speakers whose ideas offend some, or provide “safe spaces” to those who are bothered by controversial ideas. He writes:
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Such a statement of principle by a Dean at a major University is beyond reproach. It should be a non-event. Sadly, it is necessary at a time when colleges around the country are disinviting speakers to prevent uncomfortable or unpalatable views from being expressed. It is important for academic institutions to stand up and state clearly that the life of the mind means that we listen to those with whom we disagree.