A New Way of Thinking About Speech

As substantiated by the recent and pertinent debate surrounding free expression on college campuses, it is becoming clear that free speech—which is deeply related to both the university and the student as actors—will not end soon. Much current discussion is centered on the concept of right. Some argue for example that students have a right not to be offended; others contend that the right to offend is as important as the right to not be offended. Though meaningful, I submit these views often disregard or neglect the concept of speech as speech or what speech actually entails; the result is a discussion saturated with at-odds systems of personal value. For instance, many liberals believe that a right to offend is less important than the right not to be offended; for many conservatives, the opposite is true. Since these value systems are always at odds, a meaningful conclusion is never reached.

In this article, I reject the very notion of debating about right, and focus on speech in itself. In other words, I focus not on whether or not there is a right to free speech, but rather what speech does—and how this can help college students better understand free speech.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant logician and philosopher, argued that rules and language are rooted in a “forms of life” that are unique to types of people. Agreement is only possible when two people not only agree in content, but also in the rules and language from their lives. Wittgenstein writes, “It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 241)

Saul Kripke, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at CUNY, gives an example of how this works by using the mathematical concept of addition (Kripke 8). In his hypothetical, Kripke—convinced that the sum of 68 and 57 is 125—is confronted by a skeptic who doubts this claim, and instead believes that “68 + 57” is five. If Kripke had never before actually performed the addition problem, nothing empirically states that the answer need be 125; in fact, Kripke’s conclusion is merely a “leap in the dark.” (Kripke 15) Such a problem resonates upwards throughout language—Kripke concludes that language has no meaning outside of that which society gives.

Since university citizens have wide-ranging perspectives, these two conditions are not always likely to be the same. From this distinction, conflict often arises. Thus, in this context, speech serves as a way of reaching consensus. Since much dialogue in an university setting focuses on how best the university might be run—for instance, whether or not certain speakers should be invited is a concern of what stance the university ought to take on certain opinions—speech could be understand as a way of building acceptable consensus betweens students and university officials. Therefore, when two people disagree on a subject, their speech ought to be considered with the content of each’s goal: that is, their desire to convince the other to come to some agreeable consensus.

This model of speech then avoids the pesky discussion of right, and focuses rather on speech as a means to an end. This setting allows us college students to actually reach a common understanding of speech that transcends irreconcilable systems of value—and hopefully more useful conclusions of what free speech is.

—JP Zenger

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