July 23, 2019 | 71° F

FINNERTY: We should not limit expression, but embrace its plurality

Opinions Column: Waxing Philosophical


As this semester begins its final march towards the summer, everything seems quite different, yet remarkably similar. For example, this semester’s focus on freedom of speech, as pushed for by Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), has left me with a new opinion on expression, yet I’ve changed very little in terms of belief and political adherence. Beginning with the spark of YAL’s guest speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos — I’m still unimpressed by his remarks about women, but nonetheless convinced about the power of free speech — the metamorphoses was set to take place. After all, if one’s opinion is unchanging towards new insights and evidence, what would be the point of having an opinion in the first place? Ideas should grow with the individual, not keep one in the throes of some has-been fantasy.

Now, this new found appreciation for the work of YAL and the general principles of freedom of expression overall does not come without a caveat. My own desire to see people communicate effectively and without duress often seems to be compromised by such freedoms and as tempting as zones dedicated to the safety and comfort of others sounds, freedom of speech and expression seems to be the worthier battle. I’ve read far too much George Orwell in the past few weeks to let slip this notion of government special interests at the cost of freedom, despite my previous views. However, how does one fight and win a battle against those who spew hate and discrimination without legal ramifications of free speech and the like? Protesting is just not what it used to be, perhaps from a mixture of legal and civil reform or even my own skewed view of the past, some Hesiodic golden age of marches against hatred and towards freedom, granting equality for all.

The line between freedom and abuse seems to be graded and often hard to distinguish, especially from naturally-biased perspectives. Take the recent Jesus dartboard controversy covered with commentary by Fox News, in which some serious questions of liberty are discussed (okay, perhaps not that serious). Sure, an image sacred to millions of people was displayed on a dartboard in a public institution — it was removed after it was found to violate Rutgers’ rules for art display in libraries — but besides Rutgers’ secular position catering more towards policy, who has the freedom in this instance? My own general lack of religious being obviously leads me in the direction of boredom, as many religious images to me seem to be rather grotesque and cultish. However, many find inspiration and comfort in such idolatry and find it mentally painful to see such a thing, but then again, what of artistic expression and freedom of speech?

Most notable from the Fox news commentary was the claim that Christians are easy targets and artists wouldn’t dare to perform such a feat with Islamic images (the author of the article clearly doesn’t understand that images of the prophet and the like generally don’t exist). From an outcry of offense comes finger pointing and a clear line of the “us” versus “them” mentality, even adding that artists do not insult Islam because art and Islam are enemies of the church. A stretch, but I have seen crazier things in print.

So, what principles of freedom can be deduced from this exercise in liberty? Does the artist have the right to express herself, or does the religion of others take precedent? I suppose the reader will have to do their own soul searching on this one. Although I have frequently commented on religion, my goal has never been to degrade or dissuade those of religion, but rather an attempt at understanding and open dialogue. Can free speech cross the line? Again, only honest discourse can be the determining factor in this.

Nonetheless, this case-by-case examination of what is and isn’t liberty may seem tedious and often fruitless, but the open dialogue is perhaps the single best thing a democracy can provide. Where can a socialist, a libertarian and a myriad of other political affiliations come together to discuss what it actually means to be free? As time progresses and a new chapter in the Rutgers legacy opens, we ought to continue our discussion on level grounds. If there is one thing I took away from this semester, it is that the ability to express my opinion freely, without fear of government interference, is not something to be manipulated and formed, but rather something to cherish as the product of a long running social experiment. As students, as citizens, we ought to not limit expression, but embrace the plurality of it, where each individual can express their concerns and desires and hopefully find the opinion bearing the most truth and virtue.

Jonathan Finnerty is a School of Arts Sciences junior majoring in classics and philosophy. His column, "Waxing Philosophical," runs on alternate Fridays.

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Jonathan Finnerty

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