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Column: Rethinking past positions

I changed my mind.

After weeks of supporting The Chronicle's decision to run the David Horowitz advertisement and refusal to apologize, I now believe that the paper should have done otherwise.

As a Chronicle writer and an aspiring journalist, I immediately jumped to the defense of the newspaper when the uproar began. "We must do everything we can to promote free speech," I thought, or else respect for the principle will erode to the point where someday my freedom as a journalist might be inhibited. I sympathized with the protesters, but I dismissed them as ignorant of the tenets of journalism.

But for the next couple of weeks, I agonized over the gulf between the group of protesters-many of whom I consider friends-and me. Even though nobody ever presented me with an argument that swayed me, the earnestness and fervor of these individuals convinced me to re-examine my opinion and, eventually, to change it.

I began by recognizing that the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," is completely untrue. Words can and do hurt. The cruel words of our peers lead many of us into such problems as eating disorders and depression-problems that hurt us much worse than a simple beating would have.

Any beating, though, is almost certainly precipitated by cruel words. Hate speech made the Holocaust possible; hate speech made Southern lynchings possible; hate speech made the murder of Matthew Shepherd possible.

So I presented myself with a hypothetical situation: If I were a newspaper editor in Germany in the 1930s, would I have accepted an advertisement that simply pointed out a fact such as, "Jews have a disproportionate amount of wealth in this country"-perhaps factually true, but insinuating that Jews were somehow harming Germany? Or, to give another example, would I have accepted an advertisement in 1940s California that pointed out the deep cultural roots of Japanese Americans-another factually valid statement, but with a subtext of fear and animosity?

My answer to both hypothetical scenarios was an unequivocal "no." I would reject these ads because I cannot help but hold this type of speech responsible for the awful actions that followed, and any newspaper that allowed such opinions to be voiced must also bear that responsibility.

But, I wondered, how can I make the leap from 1930s Germany and 1940s California to Durham in 2001? First, I examined the content of the Horowitz ad. What was so offensive about it? I dismissed the notion that people were so upset over its factual erroneousness-as somebody pointed out, most classroom lectures on this campus are teeming with factual inaccuracies. So I looked at a line from the ad that may very well be true: "American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of twenty to fifty times that of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped." To blacks, this statement could easily read, "We could take away your civil rights and half your money, and you would still be better off than those blacks left behind in Africa."

Many blacks are old enough to remember the era before white America granted them equal rights, and those too young have studied it carefully. They know that arguments like Horowitz's were often used to defend horrible injustices. They know that when somebody says, "You're lucky just to be here," many others agree.

But why is it that the protesters were almost all black? William James once wrote, "A blind man may know all about the sky's blueness... conceptually; [b]ut so long as he has not felt the blueness... [his] knowledge, wide as it is... will be hollow and inadequate." Just as the blind person can never know what blue is, a non-black person can never know what it is like to be black. Sometimes non-blacks have to take on faith that the concerns expressed by blacks are real and not irrational.

I wish The Chronicle had not contributed to a threatening environment on campus for blacks. I would not have run the ad because I recognize that, in the past, such hate speech laid the foundation for terrible actions.

More disappointing, though, was the general lack of wisdom from the Duke faculty. I find it hard to blame anybody at The Chronicle because we are all students, not professionals, but why could not a single faculty member elucidate to the student body the reasons why people found this ad so offensive? On one hand, we have Jerry Hough blaming the victims for their lack of political clout, and on the other we had Houston Baker dishing out vitriol and vacuousness at what was supposed to be an intellectual forum about the controversy. These academic charlatans not only did a disservice to the community by their lack of judiciousness, but they also detracted from the title of "Duke professor."

The good news is that minds can change as long as we keep them open. And opening your mind-about race, ideas, and even the music you listen to-is what college is all about.

Robert Kelley is a Trinity senior and music editor

of Recess.


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