Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 604, January 23, 2011

"Home of Oppositional Defiance Disorder"

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A State of Education—Some Views of a Nontraditional Student
by Cathy L.Z. Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

I find nothing with which to disagree in Greg Lukianoff's analysis of the state of free speech on today's college and university campuses (see Greg Lukianoff on campus censorship). Censorship is a nearly universal trend, one embraced by both sides of the political spectrum, leaving those on either side who would argue against it with little recourse and no firm ground upon which to mount their objections.

It seems with respect to freedom those who find themselves in positions of power (among others) seem unable or unwilling to grasp the most fundamental tenet of freedom, namely, that in order to be free you must allow those around you to be free as well. Any limit placed on the freedom of one individual becomes a prison not only for the intended victim but for the proposer of such limitation. As the sphere of acceptable discourse becomes narrower and narrower, the likelihood of civil debate diminishes, replaced by other, less genteel, forms of communication.

An even more insidious example of this desire to eliminate opposing opinions is found in the recent push by some critics of intellectual property rights to blur, if not obliterate, the very cultural roots of historical discourse. Their mantra asserts that there are but a few stories that can be told, and the circumstances, and political, philosophical, and cultural values of the storyteller that surround those stories are irrelevant to the lessons they impart concerning the human condition.

The origins of creative works are as important as the works themselves, providing context and accountability. The desire, for instance, to remove certain "offensive" terms from the works of Mark Twain condemns us to travel those same paths again, ignorant of the wisdom that has preceded us in our social evolution. Likewise the recent Canadian decision to censor the works of Mark Knopfler, on the ever more shrilly-cited grounds of "hate speech", cramp and shrink our culture. It is impossible to change opposing attitudes once it's made impossible to explore and discuss them.

Proponents of literary expropriation oppose the "straightjacket" of the requirement to attribute sources and refrain from acts of blatant plagiarism even as they dismiss the notion of a functioning "market" in the realm of creative endeavor. These individuals assert that an original work of music, poetry or prose once "released" from the mind of its creator no longer entitles the creator to any recognition, financial or historical, excepting that which the expropriators volunteer to contribute, while they themselves, by virtue of their possession of a copy of the work, now possess the right to call it their own and distribute it without regard for the wishes of its rightful owner.

The most ominous aspect of this movement, however, is that to deny one credit for one's works is also to remove responsibility. If we are responsible for nothing that we say, for good or for ill, how do we steer a moral course through our lives and our interactions with our fellows?


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