Middlebury College President Praises “Value of Discomfort”
June 8, 2007
by Luke Sheahan
Before Parliament in 1644, John Milton said, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never allies out and sees her adversary.”
Over at City Journal’s Minding the Campus, John Leo reports that Ronald D. Liebowitz, president of Middlebury College, is taking Milton’s words to heart. In his commencement address he discussed the “value of discomfort,” stating: “If the wariness about discomfort is stronger than the desire to hear different viewpoints because engaging difference is uncomfortable, then the quest for diversity is hollow.”
FIRE has been saying this for some time. When you have freedom of expression and the clash of different views that freedom necessarily allows, then you will have conflict and discomfort. But, as the Supreme Court said in Terminello vs. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949):
[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute… is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment…
Exposure to alien and uncomfortable views is at the heart of intellectual discourse and salient to the purpose of the university. Many views now mainstream were once held by only a small minority. If such ideas had been permanently silenced, they might never have come to prominence. Likewise, views that were once accepted as all but fact have lost their eminence when challenged by views better conceived and better argued. As John Stuart Mill famously pointed out in On Liberty
, human beings are neither infallible nor all-knowing, and thus if an offensive minority opinion contains only as little as a kernel of the truth, that truth will be lost if the opinion is silenced.
President Liebowitz is arguing against “fugitive and cloistered virtue” at Middlebury College, and saying that minority opinions will not be silenced—and we at FIRE wish more would follow his lead.