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Self-Reliance Ends Up In the Hanover Dustbin

From an e-mail from a reader and Dartmouth alum:

I read with great interest your writings today about Jim Wright’s defense of “free speech.” I interpret his comments to mean that “his” exercise of free speech means that “he” can determine whenever he chooses “who” has been offended and “who” has not. Great power resides in that man!
The reader makes a good point. He’s referring to the passage in Wright’s community letter which says:
Some who have engaged in the incidents of the last few months may be unaware of the disrespect that is entailed and the hurt that is felt. That should no longer be an excuse. The rest, those who know of the hurt and disrespect and persist nonetheless, are simply bullies. “Free speech” rights are regularly asserted by the latter. […]

Let me exercise my right of free speech: I take it as a matter of principle that when people say they have been offended, they have been offended.

That is a thoroughly troublesome principle, isn’t it? Is it really true that everyone who claims to have been offended by something has indeed been offended? Isn’t it more likely that some claims of offense are legitimate while others are end-run efforts by one side of a debate to shut down the other side? People help themselves. (Now there’s a principle.) Sometimes they’ll act offended to end a discussion as quickly as possible, especially if they’re losing. Should not a contemplative college recognize this inevitability?

Those questions, of course, miss the point. It should be a matter of embarrassment for the president of a Live-Free-or-Die granite-muscled New Hampshire college to compose a missive which so obsessively meditates on the subject of offense. Offense is as old as the Ancient of Days, and it will live on forever. No one will ever kill it, and that isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps we should stop asking what constitutes offense and begin asking this: What kind of man and woman does Dartmouth seek to build? Will Dartmouth build the kind of man who values himself based upon what others think and say about him? Or is Dartmouth going to build a man who expects things of himself; who sets for himself high standards and then values himself based upon his hard, sure, observable achievements?

Does worth come from the name someone calls you or the things you have accomplished? For most of Dartmouth’s history, worth was indivisible from works. Name-calling was merely external commentary to be judged and often ignored. That philosophy turned out strong people who made a difference in the world. Now, President Jim Wright’s letter has made it Dartmouth policy to prefer the former—to suggest that everyone is fulfilling his obligation so long as he is not hurting anyone else’s feelings. And that offends me.

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