Revitalizing Freedom of Expression at Davidson 

Over the last several years, Davidson College’s inhospitality to freedom of thought has caught the attention of concerned alumni. Among other concerns, a group of alumni was deeply dismayed by the campus’s lack of support of, and sometimes even hostility towards, open inquiry and free expression. 

In 2018, these alumni formally organized themselves into an independent alumni group named the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD). DFTD “seeks to ensure that a core value of Davidson is free inquiry, not indoctrination in any ideology or political viewpoint.” Since the group’s founding, the free speech climate on campus has slowly been improving. 

For one, Davidson went from having a dismal “red light” free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in 2019 to an improved “yellow light” rating today. 

Another positive development is the work of Davidson’s Deliberative Citizenship Initiative (DCI), which strives to give students, staff, faculty, and alumni the opportunity to engage in civil discourse on difficult topics. Last month, DCI co-sponsored an event entitled, “Democracy and Freedom of Expression: Revitalizing Public Discourse on Campus and Beyond.” The event featured Dr. Leila Brammer, director of the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse at the University of Chicago. 

The faculty director of the DCI, Dr. Graham Bullock, opened the event by first talking about DCI and its mission. “Freedom of expression is foundational to productive deliberation and to a healthy campus environment, and to a vibrant democracy,” he said. 

A fellow of the DCI, Nathanael Bagonza then introduced Brammer and her work with the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse, which is “rooted in the University of Chicago Principles of free expression.” Much like the Chicago principles themselves, a goal of the Parrhesia Program is to serve as a model for other institutions to emulate.

What are the purposes of free expression? Brammer began her talk by getting to the heart of this question. For one, free expression is “rooted in the idea that we all need to have a voice,” or else the silencing of one voice will eventually lead to the silencing of “all voices.” The court of common opinion is never constant, and ideas that were once widely accepted may become the ones targeted for censorship in the future. 

Secondly, Brammer argued that free expression is essential because it fills an important need to have one’s ideas challenged so they can be developed and refined. “How do Nobel Prize winners succeed? By protesting in the quad? No, by putting their ideas out there to be tested— in journals, etc— and often by getting rejected. To develop our ideas, we need to be tested, to be challenged,” she argued. 

“When we look at our public discourse, we don’t have a lot of questions that are ‘what are the nature of?’ We have a lot of questions of ‘either/or.’”

Brammer underlined the reality that everyone is susceptible to errors and therefore should approach difficult conversations with an attitude of humility and a desire to truly understand other points of view. If one is shocked or concerned about what another has said, it’s good to follow up and ask for clarification. 

Of course, the discourse that commonly takes place in today’s culture is far from the ideals Brammer describes. One need only to tune into national news or scroll through Twitter to see the highly charged, often derogatory manner in which people engage each other on political and social issues. People have become so practiced in administering ad hominem attacks and clinging to their slogans that they have little time or interest in understanding a different point of view—much less being open to adjusting their own ideas. Brammer identified this very problem and stated that “we shouldn’t be surprised about conversations going poorly because we don’t have good models of discourse.”   

Brammer dived into the problems with discourse in a little more detail. She proposed that public discourse is too often engaged as a two-sided zero-sum game, where each side has a tendency to make “either/or” arguments. Those whose opinions lie somewhere in the middle, or who have a different view than the other two proposed, are disregarded and even scorned. “The middle is really tenuous ground. It looks a lot like our political parties,” she noted.  

To illustrate her point, Brammer described an exercise she frequently does with middle school students. She asks the class “who likes dogs and who likes cats?” And then she invites a student who likes dogs and a student who likes cats to the front of the room. She then poses the question, “what’s the nature of the best pet?” Typically, the dog person will begin by saying “I like dogs because…,” which she says is a fine way to begin. The next move after that, however, quickly shifts to commenting on what is wrong with the other position: “cats are bad because…” After that, Brammer said that the third move “always” ends with the students saying something along the lines of “and you are bad because you like cats, it’s because you’re so needy.” 

This exercise, Brammer said, captures nearly everything that is wrong with discourse today. “Who’s left out?” she asks. For one, people who aren’t interested in this sort of heated polarized discussion, and people who neither like cats nor dogs. She offered that a way to disrupt this dynamic is to bring in a third point of view—perhaps someone who likes rabbits. Posing the same question again, but this time to three people with three different perspectives, immediately makes everyone start cooperating. They might say, “well, pets make good companions.” 

“All of a sudden they are actually doing the work of the question of ‘what is the nature of?’” Brammer explained. “When we look at our public discourse, we don’t have a lot of questions that are ‘what are the nature of?’ We have a lot of questions of ‘either/or.’”

An example is the debate over the proposal of a $15 minimum wage. “Can anyone tell me why it’s $15?” she asked. In her view, it has become a slogan that requires either support or opposition—an either/or position. Instead of approaching the debate in this manner, Brammer recommended asking, “what is the nature of a living wage?” People then may say what characteristics they think a living wage should have, and those characteristics can later be incorporated into a policy. She argued that leading with policy gets the country into the “either/or” divide. A much more helpful tactic would be to engage in questions such as “what is the nature of a successful economy?” 

Doing so won’t only improve how citizens communicate with each other, it will ultimately make individuals better advocates for their own beliefs. 

Wrapping up her talk, Brammer argued that the key to healing many of the problems she outlined is to focus on rebuilding local discourse, tapping into the local networks that already exist in communities and helping them learn how to have productive conversations, rooted in “Aristotelian civil friendship.” 

A founding member of the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, John Craig, told the Martin Center that he attended Brammer’s talk, as well as a seminar she gave earlier that afternoon. Craig praised Brammer’s “helpful insights and examples on how to communicate effectively with individuals with whom one disagrees,” adding, “the DCI program is a very positive step towards improving freedom of expression on the Davidsonian campus.”

Craig, however, added that there is more work to be done:

[DCI] would undoubtedly have more impact were the “Davidson College Commitment to Freedom of Expression” statement, produced by a task force of faculty, students, alumni, and a trustee last fall, to be formally adopted by the Davidson board of trustees and faculty. The task force was appointed by president Carol Quillen, and it adapted the Chicago Principles to suit Davidson’s needs. It’s a strong stand for freedom of expression, but will have limited impact without formal adoption. We are told there are no plans for adoption at this time.

The door is wide open for Davidson’s leaders to further strengthen freedom of expression on campus. It’s time they take that next step.

Shannon Watkins is associate editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal