Civil Discourse Is Free Discourse

September 2006

Safiyyah Ally’s thoughtful Forum piece draws the contrast between the legally permissible and what is disrespectful or hurtful and suggests that free speech might be limited by respect, even if it is permissible (Beyond Posturing, March 6). She provides some examples of limits on free expression and says that “civil discourse exists on a higher plane than does free speech, setting limits that are often not enacted by law but are rather agreed upon by individuals within society.” One has sympathy for those deeply offended by a particular form of free expression, not least because almost all of us can imagine like offence being given by some other form: one person’s biting wit may mean another person’s hurtful wound.

The question for a university, however, is not about social norms but about the very meaning of civil discourse. Civil discourse is not always comfortable.

Sometimes it is passionate and engaged, far from cool and polite. Its very civility lies not in manners, or in the social conventions of a group, but in its attempts to create, challenge and enlarge understanding.

Discourse that is truly civil is the expression of a culture that embraces communities of difference who may passionately disagree but, nevertheless, continue to talk and to listen. Properly civil discourse will not remain silent about the appropriate limits on free expression; it will debate laws and customs; it will call prejudice to account even if it must shock to do so. Bland speech may not offend but it may also mask injustice. Civil discourse must sometimes be provocative discourse. No one should take delight in the offence of others. But a free society is willing to give voice to the arts and to the press, for instance, even when they are scandalous or disrespectful, because power and prejudice love respectful silence. Within a free society, the university has a special obligation to protect the space for free and civil discourse.

Different societies have different limits on free expression. Where may these limits be discussed, criticized, defended or debated, if not in a university? Where may the passionate learn to think and speak effectively about their passions, by opening them up to discussion and debate with others, if not in a university?

Universities must be places where freedom flourishes, for there is no better place to explore and determine what civil discourse actually is. That is why the fundamental question about the limits of freedom in a university must be the simple one of whether the conditions of free and informed discussion are violated. Offence should call forth more discourse, not shut it down.