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False Omnipotence: Some Thoughts on Haverford, Free Speech, and Uncertainty

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

It is easy to characterize speech as arrogance; on the Haverford College campus, this is a common accusation. “How can you weaponize privilege with your words?” “Your speech uses power to marginalize others.” “Your words are traumatic; they must be stopped in the name of safety.” These are the usual refrains. They suggest that the unpopular speaker is transgressing a boundary; asserting themselves when they have no place to share their views; forcefully ripping rights, safety, and security away from vulnerable people; or causing harm simply by voicing a thought. And if we possessed omnipotent knowledge of the workings of the universe, to the extent that we genuinely had the truth pinned down, carefully cornered and tamed into a single canonical dogma—then these refrains would be right! To suggest that principles which are so clearly true may be false would be blatantly harmful, and idiotically arrogant.

But we are not gods. And nobody has all of the answers.

The Duck Pond at Haverford College
The Duck Pond at Haverford College.

I come from a very rural area. It's an economically depressed piece of Pennsylvania, where people have turned to conservativism for salvation. Almost every member of my immediate family enthusiastically supported Donald Trump; a strong majority of my neighbors, classmates, teachers, and coworkers did likewise. In class, in church, at Thanksgiving—I grew up as the sole dissenter. I despise Trump and the Republican party, and my rebuttals stood in direct contradiction of my area’s values. But my community members let me have my say. They didn’t agree with me, didn’t relish my words—they often worked to refute my points. But they did not silence me. And despite our many disagreements, I always respected them for that. There was a sense, at home, that there was something to be gained through discussion. I cannot say with certainty whether I have genuinely changed my parents’ minds on crucial issues—but I do know that my own perspective was deeply shaped by what I heard.

Haverford was supposed to be a fresh ideological start, my salvation after a long sojourn in the desert; a blue tide of peers who agreed with my deepest beliefs. And in many ways, the school has fulfilled that promise. Students are overwhelmingly caring and conscientious. Community members are thoughtful, and they try to do good in the world. People put their money where their mouths are—and I respect that. Haverfordians walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.

Haverford College in the fall
Haverford College in the fall.

But here’s the rub: Haverford talks just one talk. My freshman self didn’t understand that there could be different shades of blue, and that Haverford prides itself as one of the deepest. I myself am a proud moderate, and as a result I disagree with a number of positions held in universal regard at my school. I don’t believe in defunding the police. I support a ban on abortion after twelve weeks. I think that the abolition of prisons is an impossible goal. I am skeptical of affirmative action. I feel that liberal circles have left boys and men—not to mention rural America—behind. I grate against the incessant references to identity in every missive of the college.

These opinions are enough to get me branded as dangerous by many members of my community—and indeed, I don’t voice them often, for fear of losing another friend. Tensions peaked during the 2021 student strike. I’ve said my piece on that incident already, and Jacob Gaba has done an excellent job of working through its ramifications for this project.

The most relevant piece of my experience of the strike to this article is the fact that I was removed from Students’ Council during this meeting for defending my decision to speak out against it. Throughout the meeting, I kept a cool demeanor, unwilling to get angry—but the mere act of defense was enough to label me the sort of person who causes harm to others.

I was removed from Students’ Council during this meeting for defending my decision to speak out.

Indeed, while the strike has passed, its dynamics live on. Perhaps if someone was willing to engage in honest and generous discussion with me, they would learn that I think that criminal justice reform is essential; that I feel genuinely unsure about the ethics of abortion; that I believe identity politics alienate the voters we most need to make genuine change in this country.

But the Haverford community has decided that on a number of issues, only a single view is acceptable. From the vantage point of discourse, this environment is stultifying; every statement must be evaluated, every thought screened and filtered before it can be carefully expressed, lest it prove transgressive.

This is not a healthy environment for intellectual growth; on Haverford’s campus, beliefs are never changed, only reinforced.

And if anyone dares to question this collective doctrine, the consequence is not vigorous disagreement, but silence, alienation, and disgust. While Haverford’s Honor Code codifies this rejection, its power lies primarily in the ability of one’s peers to exert social isolation on anyone who does not toe the line. The Honor’s Code treatment of speech is worth an article in and of itself, but suffice it to say that the document is not friendly to freedom of speech. The effect is vicious; like a zealous congregation, the group purges itself of nonbelievers. I’m not the first to compare cancel culture to Puritan oppression, but the analogy is appropriate—for the more one is alienated, the further they drift, and the greater an opportunity there is for resentment to grow. To be exiled from the crowd also pushes potential allies to the other side, and—counterintuitively—weakens the instigators of exile. As Ryan Grim notes in his excellent unpacking of progressive meltdowns at high-profile nonprofits and advocacy groups:

“Winning power requires working in coalition with people who, by definition, do not agree with you on everything; otherwise they’d be a part of your organization and not a separate organization working with you in coalition. Winning power requires unity in the face of a greater opposition, which runs counter to a desire to live a just life in every moment.”

Indeed, Haverford students have made much the same point before, noting that “the act of silencing other voices and making ad hominem attacks is counterproductive because it severely detracts from our collective power.”

If you adopt the collective beliefs of the school community, and blindly and wholeheartedly ratify its prepackaged opinions, then this culture is a blessing. It is a mesh of constant support, a comforting reinforcement; who doesn’t enjoy constant affirmation in class, on the field, and in their inbox? But comfort for ourselves is not the same as addressing pressing issues for others. The greatest injustices will always require difficult conversations, productive disagreement, and working across lines of difference.

The greatest injustices will always require difficult conversations, productive disagreement, and working across lines of difference.

Free speech is not about constant affirmation. It is instead founded upon humility: recognizing that we must question our own certainties to reach the truth.

The doctrine of Haverford is not universally accepted, no matter how many times its adherents assert otherwise. The world is fundamentally uncertain, and filled with knowledgeable, thoughtful people who disagree; to assume that one’s set of beliefs is indomitably correct is to seal oneself off from growth, change, and the inexorable march to truth. I am a stubborn person; the bar to change my opinions is high. But the only way I can hope to improve is by listening to what others have to say, debating them at times, digesting their thoughts, altering and tinkering with my own beliefs, and slowly, steadily shifting.

Crushing free speech, on Haverford’s campus or in any context, seals us off from this evolution, for it assumes that one doctrine is unshakably valid—that our assumptions are so indisputably correct that questioning them is an insult. But we are not gods; we cannot assume that our beliefs are forever fixed, that they are so immovable that it is not worth even hearing out the position of one who disagrees in good faith.

But we are not gods; we cannot assume that our beliefs are forever fixed, that they are so immovable that it is not worth even hearing out the position of one who disagrees in good faith.

Arrogance does not lie with the speaker who dares to cross doctrine, but with those who believe that they have figured the world out to the extent that opposing discourse holds no value—to the extent that no other belief is even worth placing on the table. There is an arrogance in that certainty, a close-mindedness to difference, and an unwillingness to confront the simple fact that you may be wrong.

The world is better when we embrace the humility of uncertainty—when we are willing to listen to others, debate them, work to understand them—no matter how immovable our current beliefs feel. This is a fundamental step in any journey to understanding a topic, and a fundamental step of education. One cannot grow intellectually without confronting disagreement and the pain it may bring. Striving for the truth, altering one’s opinions, listening to beliefs that one finds unsavory—these are not pleasant experiences. But they are necessary steps on the path to intellectual growth.

Curl up into the safety of orthodoxy, and you will feel vindicated, reinforced, and smugly comfortable in your mesh of preordained beliefs. But know that any doctrine’s mesh is also a web that traps you from moving forwards. It is my sincere hope that this project and others like it will foster healthy discourse on campuses across the country, for without that, we are doomed to fall into the stagnant pool of common opinions, cradled by comfortable certainty—and deluded by our own false omnipotence.

By: Nicholas Lasinsky

About the author: Nicholas Lasinsky ‘23 is a current student at Haverford College.

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