Free speech once again took center stage at SUNY New Paltz in the form of an engaging discussion between students, faculty and community members.
On Monday, Nov. 14, the “Panel Discussion Follow-Up to Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s September 2016 Talk” was held in Lecture Center room 102. The objective of the event was to discuss and examine the points made during Haidt’s lecture on trigger warnings, as well as “continue to help advance a thoughtful dialogue regarding issues of free speech.”
The talk featured members of the faculty free speech task force, including Eugene Heath, a philosophy professor, and Dan Lipson, an associate political science professor, along with Gowri Parameswaran, chair of Educational Studies and Leadership, and Marisa Losciale, a fourth-year journalism major.
The evening was formatted to allow each speaker to talk for approximately eight minutes, followed by a Q & A session with the audience. The event was moderated by task force member Pat Sullivan, who serves as director of the Honors Program, who stated that Haidt’s presentation was one of the most provocative presentations she had seen on campus.
Heath began his lecture by referencing the recent student production of “Oklahoma!,” arguing that, indeed, the farmer and the cowman could be friends. He explained that his comments were meant to address Haidt’s rhetorical examples, Truth and Social Justice University, (SJU). Heath disagreed with Haidt’s assertion that there had to be a schism between the two, arguing that social justice and truth are not independent and can be done if there’s a distinction.
Heath said that faculty members have a responsibility to teach the truth, encourage and allow dissent, regardless of their personal opinions. Additionally, Heath asserted that there had not been a conservative speaker invited to campus since at least 2004.
“You’ll hardly find any speakers on campus that challenge the orthodoxy, and the problem when that happens is the university becomes monolithic,” Heath said.
Lipson followed after, admitting that Haidt was not his preferred choice, but said, “he was worthy and spoke on serious subjects.” Lipson objected to his argument about Truth University and SJU, calling it, “a non-starter,” “out of touch” and deemed his claims to be “very dubious.”
During her segment, Losciale highlighted instances where truth and social justice achieved effective change. These included when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses and the debunking of the undercover Planned Parenthood tapes from last year.
Finally, Parameswaran commented on what she saw as blatant flaws in Haidt’s lecture, including his failure to acknowledge his own white privilege. She contrasted his attendance at Yale University in the early 1980s with her own in India, arguing that his campus experience was less contentious due to the homogenized demographics of the Ivy League school. She argued that his stances promoted “half-truths,” “straw positions” and “offered little concrete evidence beyond lashing out at SJU.”
The Q & A session afterwards engaged a number of students and community members, some who criticized the event for not offering a balanced response to Haidt’s lecture. Additionally, some audience members were critical of the treatment of conservatives on campus, especially in the wake of the election of President-elect Donald Trump. They highlighted the harassment of Trump voters, referred to the post-election vigil in front of the SUB as a “safe space” and criticized faculty for cancelling classes as instances of liberal bias on campus.
SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian asked to address the audience in order to clarify that he saw Haidt’s lecture as a learning experience for the campus. Christian acknowledged that cancellation of a politics in media debate spurred Haidt’s appearance in the first place, reiterating that he didn’t want to, “be one of those campuses that disinvites speakers.” Additionally, Christian said that he received mixed reactions from alumni throughout the week on the subject of the election, though he declined to make his personal feelings known due to his status as the president of a public college.
After several comments highlighting allegations of harassment against conservative students, Christian read emails from students who voted for Trump. One student wrote to Christian about how they didn’t feel like they had a voice, saying, “I don’t want to be generalized in a group that I’m not a part of.” The other student urged the administration to promote intellectual diversity, arguing that there was “no safe space for my views.”