Letter from the Editor: Reflecting on discourse, censorship after a quarter as Opinion Editor

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

Last Spring Quarter, I wrote a column arguing that hate speech should not be free speech. I received a litany of nasty emails and comments calling me a fascist and saying that I didn’t deserve free speech if I opposed it for others. I’ll admit that the piece could’ve been worded better and that it didn’t represent the full scope and nuance of my argument. But I found it interesting that most people who contacted me addressed me as if I had single-handedly ripped the First Amendment from the pages of the Bill of Rights, as if I had shoved my column down their throats and forced them to read it. It was amusing and concerning to me that they felt my opinions were so significant and consequential that they warranted a response.

They failed to see me as a human with an idea. And because I am human and inherently flawed, they failed to realize that my ideas are, too. Some people may agree with what I say, and some may disagree.

That same imperfection is true for all humans, for all ideas. Running this section for a quarter has taught me that. It doesn’t matter how solidly written a column is; there’s always room to poke holes in an argument. On the other hand, there’s almost always room to find humanity and goodness in a poorly-written column. As hard as it is to suppress that immediate visceral reaction on social media to something we view as bad, we have to make an effort to think in as balanced a manner as we can muster.

I’m not saying that this is easy in the slightest. Politics is personal, and abstract policy decisions made by a group largely made up of old, straight, white men can have concrete and devastating effects on marginalized populations. It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with people who possess enough privilege that they’ll never be personally impacted by most of these actions. The ability to debate these things is, in itself, a privilege; we need to be cognizant of that.

But through it all I maintain the belief that, on many issues, we need to engage with each other in order to make real change happen. We have a responsibility to show our opponents the human angle on every story, and we need to operate on the belief that no one should suffer at the hands of another.

That being said, I still stand by what I wrote over a year ago. There are some opinions that I believe we cannot amplify and that we have a duty to prevent from entering public debate. Among these are Nazism (and other outright bigotry), glorifying rape culture and denying climate change — if there is an opinion that I believe violently attacks a person or group of people out of pure and unfounded hatred, I will not run it.

Make no mistake — I don’t advocate for government-sponsored censorship of these opinions. It’s hilarious how many times angry commenters have told me to read “1984,” as if every single person who went to high school in America hasn’t already had that tired narrative drilled into their heads. Instead, I believe in a kind of social censorship of these ideas, a collective agreement among individuals that there are certain things we don’t tolerate in conversation or online. And I believe this page is a non-governmental, social institution that can — and should — participate in that.

It may seem hypocritical of me to come out so strongly against these opinions, considering that many columns published this quarter have been results of these larger “censor-worthy” frameworks. For the most part, I believe that these opinions should be debated and connected to the more insidious ideologies they come from. They are specific enough to be picked apart in public discourse, and I publish them with that intention. Just as we run columns that seem like “trash” to some, we welcome Letters to the Editor as published responses to them.

As Opinion Editor, I’ve constantly had to walk the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. I’ve had to decide whether to engage or step back. And I’ve had to make judgements about what this community needs to hear. I won’t claim that I’ve done a perfect job at any of that, but I hope you will continue to listen and contribute respectfully to the conversation.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.