April 9, 2011
After I sent out my recent letter to the Earlham College community about academic freedom, a student wrote me a response that simply included this quotation from Bayard Rustin: “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”
I think that’s profound. And it’s especially fitting that the source is Bayard Rustin, someone many Quakers especially revere. Rustin was an important civil rights leader, and a witness for pacifism.
Another student wrote to object to my letter, saying that it is “extremely belittling” “to people and their experiences of real oppression when you characterize Murray’s ideas as simply ‘offensive’ to them, or ‘objectionable,’ or chalking the ‘controversy’ up to a question of ‘academic disagreement.'” She added, “I am saddened that it is not more widely realized that for many members of our community the stakes are so much higher than that. Some of Murray’s ideas aren’t just ‘offensive’ to people, they are violent, (and I choose that word carefully).”
Can words be violent? Can ideas, as ideas, be violent? On one hand, I don’t think it is possible to make too sharp a separation between words and actions. Words can incite to action, can provoke.
On the other hand, the idea of academic freedom rests on an insistence that it is important and useful in some circumstances to make such a sharp separation. Colleges and universities have adopted the principle of academic freedom not because they deny that ideas and action aren’t connected, but rather because there need to be some places where ideas can tussle with one another without any ideas being excluded or silenced before the debate begins.
Why do we think it is a good practice to create such arenas for unbridled discussion of ideas? Because we have confidence that good ideas, true ideas, will triumph ultimately over bad ideas or false ones. Because we believe that any other way of upholding good ideas — any way that sets some ideas outside the possibility of discussion (any creed) — will undermine the truth.
To try to exclude some ideas from the debate is to lack confidence in the truth. Or, as Rustin says, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”