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Difficult conversations, part 2

In his inaugural freshman address last year, President Peter Salovey ’86PhD advised Yale College’s newest students to have “uncomfortable conversations” about their families’ varying economic circumstances.

This weekend, Salovey urged the latest crop of freshmen toward a wider world of uncomfortable topics: “anything and everything” that offends them.

“We need to be able to discuss intelligently anything and everything in order to engage each other in the best education possible, one that does not merely reaffirm what you believed to be true before setting foot in New Haven,” Salovey said in his August 23 speech.

While that might sound obvious, it’s not so easy in practice.

What happens, the president asked, when someone makes an insensitive or even insulting comment in class? His answer: don’t shut them down; engage them.

Nearly 40 years after Yale historian C. Vann Woodward wrote a landmark report on free speech at the university, arguments still rage about who may say what on campus, and what forms of protest are acceptable. When controversial speakers are disinvited, protesters find their signs destroyed, and hecklers shout down those who’ve been asked to speak, it is important “to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus,” Salovey told the class of 2018.

He quoted extensively from the Woodward report, which remains Yale policy and is a model for many other university free-speech policies.

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” Woodward wrote. “Whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

That doesn’t mean it’s open season on student sensitivities, however.

At a university, free expression “should seek to enhance understanding,” Woodward argued. While civility does not trump the free exchange of ideas, mutual respect and friendship are still important community values:

Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets.

Or, in Salovey’s words, “the right to free expression does not relieve us of the obligation to think before we speak.” And he warned students that threatening or harassing speech is not protected.

At the same time, the president said he cannot and should not promise “a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone.

“For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas, ideas that rock our worlds.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Peter Salovey, free speech
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