Talking About Speech

By Martha Umphrey || Issue 148-20

To the Amherst community:

How should we talk to each other in a college setting that prizes thoughtful speech? We have all struggled with this question as we debate the Common Language Guide circulated some days ago. The guide has generated speech conundrums that are entangling our community in a morass of response and counter-response, challenging not only student governance practices but also, more fundamentally, values central to our best vision of Amherst.

I teach a Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (LJST) course on speech and wonder whether there are ways to think rigorously and empathetically about the controversies overtaking reactions to these events. In best professorial fashion, let me pose a set of questions, genuinely offered, that might complicate those reactions and offer the basis for a less reflexive and perhaps more deliberative response:

What is a guide, and from what impulses did it arise? Can guides actually ever determine the meaning of words? Why should and shouldn’t they try?

Has anyone really been censored? The guide is fully available on the internet and has provoked, not stifled, a great deal of talk both here and nationally, with significant consequences to the college.

What are the boundaries of our speech community? To whom do we speak with a guide, or a retweet of the guide, or a critique of the retweet? Who has a genuine investment in the well-being of our community and how should we hear their speech?

What does it mean to have an “official voice” and who enunciates it? What is a college? A club? A student government? Who speaks for such an entity, and why would we want it to speak differently as an official entity rather than in the voices of individuals?

Is there any room for mistake, irony, histrionics or comedy in the ways we speak to each other? Where and among whom?

If someone says something to someone else that they think is private but is then made public, how should we understand the intent behind what they said? Was it meant to harm an audience not contemplated by it? Should intent to harm matter? Should what is said privately be made public, and what harm can flow from that revelatory act? If it is made public, what kind of apology is appropriate on either side? If the apology is sincere, should it be accepted?

What is the relationship between criticizing and censoring? Mocking and censoring? Defunding and censoring? In those different speech contexts, how does power operate? What is the harm of each? How should we respond to each?

If a group of any sort says it feels excluded from the community, what intentional actions might it take to be included? Does that goal inform the way the group speaks to the community and to other groups, or is the goal imperilled by what is said?

Would communicating person-to-person rather than online change the way we talk with each other? If so, how could we find the best ways to talk so that we foster attachment rather than division?

In the end, I urge us to move offline, to talk honestly and with an appreciation of what makes us human — our desires and our missteps — in ways that can generate interaction that is more genuine and meaningful, and directed toward what might be called the public good — the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

—Professor of LJST Martha Umphrey