It happened again. I can’t remember the date or the discussion topic, but I’m sitting in class, listening to someone give a weak defense of a philosophical argument. I raise my hand and give a rebuttal, pointing out the factual inaccuracies and offering a different point of view. But rather than challenging my response, six other guys raise their hands and repeat the exact same point the first colleague made. I roll my eyes, check my watch, and I tune out.
In his thesis On Liberty, John Stuart Mill introduces a concept treasured in Western thought traditions and most of my political science courses: the free marketplace of ideas, or the theory that free debate helps us find the best ideas. Mill argues that we shouldn’t limit speech in any capacity — not only because it harms those holding a minority opinion, but because the most effective method of sorting “good” or “truthful” ideas from “bad” or “false” ideas is by engaging in free, intellectual competition.
Sound familiar? That’s because this is basically the founding principle of college campuses. Universities across America champion “diversity of opinion” and attempt to provide a space where all students can contribute to it. It’s no different at UNC Charlotte. In a statement made to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Vice Chancellor Jesh Humphrey said: “A key component of UNC Charlotte’s institutional mission is to promote a robust, intellectual environment that values social and cultural diversity, free expression, collegiality, integrity and mutual respect.” For all the significance universities (including UNC Charlotte) give free expression, they sure seem to be doing a shoddy job preserving it. In order for the free marketplace of ideas to actually work — for people to successfully prove the best, most truthful points and debunk the worst, most dishonest points — participants need to meet a few pre-existing conditions. Some are pretty obvious: you need to do the readings, you need to have evidence, you can’t use logical fallacies, and so on. But the number one requirement for a productive conversation is freedom: from harassment, from hate speech, and from systematic oppression.
This is where I find myself getting stuck. Let’s return to that classroom. I give a thoughtful, well-reasoned response to my colleague’s initial argument. Six people bulldoze right over it and say the same thing my colleague had said before. I feel shut out of the conversation. So I tune out. I pack up my thoughts and leave the free marketplace of ideas, because clearly nobody in that classroom thinks my points are worth the engagement. Why? I did the readings. I had evidence. I didn’t use logical fallacies. My ideas are clearly worth something. So why am I being forced out?
This is where the free marketplace fails as a concept. There could be any number of reasons for this occurring: they’re experiencing confirmation bias, they all read the same newspaper, or it’s just plain dumb coincidence. But this isn’t the first time it’s happened. It is impossible to count the number of times I’ve been interrupted and ignored while speaking in class. Why is that? My best guess is because even as I engage in a supposedly free discussion, I am not free from oppression.
The people in that room see that I am trans. They see my queerness, and understand that I am not like them. Because I bring my transness to the discussion, they also bring their preconceived notions of transness to the discussion. Those notions aren’t always harmful, but some of them — like the ones saying I’m a confused dyke who doesn’t deserve to be heard — are.
Do you see how we’re at a standstill? On one hand, there’s nothing I can do. People cannot leave their gender (or race, or disability, et cetera) at the door. On the other hand, there’s an expectation that I accommodate this marketplace: that I let people purposefully misgender me, that I let people use slurs in academic settings, that I let people consider the concept that maybe trans people don’t deserve rights or dignity. In other words, they refuse to leave their misconceptions and even hatred at the door.
This is the issue at UNC Charlotte and almost every other university. We champion ideas like the free marketplace of ideas, but we fail to recognize that it’s an impossible endeavor as long as unfree individuals exist. The inevitable result is that oppressed people stop engaging in these discussions. Why should we contribute if people refuse to listen?
I know the cause célèbre for many conservative activists is preserving free expression. I sympathize with their mission, but I don’t think they understand the true concept of free expression. Free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want: it’s the ability to be heard and understood.
So, a request: hear us. When we’re being talked over, uplift our voices. When we’re being subjected to thinly disguised hate speech, defend us from harm. When six Juuling libertarians completely ignore my remarks, give my sorry ass a wink. Let me know that somebody in the marketplace is listening to me.