Diag Controversy

October 9, 2011

Political Theory

You may recall the strong belief in the freedom of expression that John Stuart Mill expresses in Chapter two of On Liberty. Mill goes as far as saying “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race…” I am personally in accordance with Mill in the sense that it is wrong to silence any opinion whether you agree with it or not. Lets say you meet someone who claims to have the cure to cancer. The idea could appear to be ridiculous to you and I and we may believe that this individual has no chance of curing cancer, but what if they do have a chance?  What if their cure will work? If we are able to discourage this person enough and silence their opinion we have done human kind a major injustice, as Mill says, “robbing the human race.” I believe that we can all agree that in this hypothetical situation, silencing the opinion of a potential cure to cancer would be extremely detrimental to human kind

With that being said, I am sure everyone reading this blog went through the Diag on Monday October 3rd and witnessed the pro-life exhibit that was set up. I personally had no issues with the exhibit. While I will refrain from sharing my own opinions on abortion because that is not what this is about, I believe that if someone feels as strongly about a topic as this group did, they should be able to express their opinions. To play devils advocate for this special interest group, what if they were able to reach out to one person who was considering an abortion and they saved a child. What if that child went on to be the next Steve Jobs or the next Lebron James or Barack Obama? Would they be any less of a hero than the individual who cured cancer?

Realistically, what is the difference between the two situations? Nobody will oppose cancer research because a cure will save the lives of millions of people. On the other hand, why is it okay to silence pro-life advocates just because they are vocalizing their opinion on a controversial topic? At this time, the special interest group is taking on a lot of heat for their display and many would have preferred if it were never approved. Do these individuals have a case? If one revisits the quote from Mill that I posted in the first paragraph, he would say the silencing of this group would be a peculiar evil that is robbing the human race.

If you are someone who was nodding your head during my first paragraph and then shaking your head during the second paragraph, why are they different? Again, this is not a question of pro-life vs. pro-choice, it is a question of freedom of expression. It is a question of why a controversial topic makes us forget that we all have the right to freely express ourselves. While cancer research may reach a wider skill of people, bring it back to John Stuart Mill and freedom of expression. Are the pro-life advocates any less entitled to freedom of expression because the lives they seek to save are drastically fewer in numbers? Do they deserve to be silenced because their support for their belief comes in the form of potentially disturbing images. This group thought that concept of abortion was so extreme that they compared it to genocide in Darfur and the holocaust through their visual exhibit.

When you reply to this topic, think for a second about whether you have the ability to stand up for what you believe in even in the face of adversity as these students responsible for the Diag exhibit are facing now. Think about what you would do if you freedom of expression was taken away because you were in favor or not in favor of a controversial topic. These questions and questions from the above paragraphs are just a few that came to my mind as I walked the Diag on October 3rd 2011.



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11 Comments on “Diag Controversy”

  1. chadmach Says:

    I do think that John Stuart Mill would of course agree with the recent showing in the Diag. I also believe that if many of the people who criticized it were to read Mill’s stand about freedom of expression they would also find themselves agreeing that what was being shown was in fact within all bounds of freedom of speech. I think that what most people struggle with is that they are not usually exposed to that type of freedom of speech. They are not used to being shown graphic images of aborted fetus’ therefor there was a greater backlash against it. Of course the pro-life group is no less entitled to freedom of speech on the basis of the lives they aim to save or because the images the show. They also showed images of past and recent genocide. Had the demonstration been about genocide instead and had shown images of murdered people in genocide I think there would not have been as much of a backlash even though the pictures would have very similar content.

    What would be an interesting experiment is to see if there would be a similar reaction to putting up large pictures of pornography. Both should be considered within the bounds of freedom of speech; the recent display as an attempt to get a point across and the other as an artistic expression. Both can also be visually displeasing, and I wonder if people who were okay with the pro-life pictures would be okay with the pornography.

    Regarding the idea raised about the cancer treatment, I feel that it would depend on how this person goes about the treatment of cancer. I know that stem cells have been found to treat some patients with kidney cancer, but would everyone be in support of this? Stem cell research is also a hotly debated topic and there may in fact be people who oppose this despite the great benefits it may have.

  2. tyhughes2014 Says:

    Being such a controversial and touchy topic in society, I believe many lose sight of the basic aspects that need to be considered when deciding whether or not such displays should be displayed in public places, such as the Diag. marckarpinos31 does a very nice job in explaining how Mill’s work relates to this situation and how society must be careful not to suppress individuals or groups just because the idea they are representing has been deemed controversial by society.

    With that being said, I believe Mill’s work could also be used to support the limiting of the anti-abortion group on the Diag.

    In his writing Mill states “With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely, invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation” (Mill Paragraph 45). After analyzing this quote, one would be driven to conclude that any argument that utilizes “invective, sarcasm, personality, or the like” is not a just argument and should not be used. It is not saying that the argument is false or shouldn’t be allowed to be expressed however.

    My thought is this: Does the displays presented by the anti-abortion group and the manner in which they presented their argument go against, as Mill describes, a “fair discussion”? I am inclined to answer this question yes, simply because the images at the Diag can be considered invective. Invective is defined as “insulting, abusive, or highly critical language” (Merriam-Webster). With relative ease I can argue that the images presented at the Diag were, to some, insulting, abusive, and highly critical. It was clear that many found the images disturbing and offensive. While the hope was that such images would reinforce the message being purveyed, one needs to think about whether or not there is a boundary that should be established on what can be used to make a point and reinforce an argument. I personally believe that the nature of the images presented on the Diag crossed such a boundary, and the group should have presented their argument in a more professional and less graphic manner.

    Mill may not have wanted the anti-abortion demonstrators to be silenced or suppressed by society, but it can be argued that he would have viewed the manner in which they presented their argument as going against the reasonable limits of freedom of expression and speech.

    Do others believe this quote by Mill provides support for limiting the anti-abortion protestors, or is there a different manner in which the quote can be deciphered and analyzed?

  3. Brandon Canniff Says:

    Too use John Stuart Mill as a panacea for freedom of expression is a sadly reductionist understanding of him as a political theorist and a poor excuse for speaking before you think. Mill my be an advocate of free speech, but it is one thing to put forth your argument to spur discussion and quite another to make personal attacks on another way of thinking. What the pro-life activists did on the diag Monday is a clear example of this; they took an argument (abortion should be illegal) and turned it into an ethics challenge (if you allow abortion you are justifying the Holocaust). On top of that they threw up disturbing images of dead babies for everyone to see which was not only unnecessary to make their point, it was also far from descriptive of abortion in practice.
    This is very distinct from someone spewing lies about curing cancer. Claiming to cure cancer never caused psychological trauma or alienated anyone morally. And the pro-life activists didn’t have to either. They could have talked about the merits of keeping a child independent of attacks on anyone’s’ morals; they could have handed out condoms, like they were, without displaying images of bleeding babies behind them.
    Calling people Nazis is not bettering society, it is just plain offensive. At least that’s my take on the pro-life diag display.

  4. blakesimons Says:

    While reading your post, I personally find it hard to agree with you. The protests that were exhibited at the Diag on this fateful day draw to attention more than the argument of free speech. There is no denying the fact that John Stuart Mill’s ideas on freedom of expression validate the actions taken by the pro-choice group. Mill, indeed, wrote that “silencing the expression of an opinion is…robbing the human race”. In no way am I denying the fact that the pro-choice group had the right to express their opinions, as I am a proponent of freedom of expression. With this being said, the ways this particular group went about expressing their opinion is completely unacceptable, in my opinion.

    What this group of pro-choice activists did was take a topic involving individuality (abortion) and magnetized it by comparing it to worldwide genocides. Now, am I making the case that these individual activists do not have the right to vocalize their opinions in what they think are similar topics? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that their poor approach trying to convince a university’s student population on an issue involving ethics and morality utilizing disturbing graphics of genocides is unacceptable. Essentially telling students, “if you think the Holocaust was wrong, then you have to think abortion is wrong” is a direct crime of attempting to escape logic. Is it a legal crime? No. Is it a logical crime? Yes.

    I’m not saying that what the pro-choice activists did was illegal, or should be illegal for that matter. In fact, their display (while unnecessarily gruesome) was a completely legal way of expressing opinion. The crime of the activists lies in their faulty logic and their abominable attempt in trying to connect an issue of individuality and personal morals to human genocides, such as the Holocaust.

  5. leannaprairie Says:

    It is absolutely true that each individual and group should have the right to express their views and opinions. However, there is a time and a place to do so, as well as a tasteful way to do so. Just because we want to share our beliefs does not mean that it has to involve potentially offensive public displays.

    I do believe that this group was well within their rights to share their views, but I think they took it too far in showing these very graphic images, as well as comparing abortion to genocide. I think the way they should have gone about this would be more subtle, like perhaps handing out fliers with information on them instead bombarding the general public with these images.

    I do agree with chadmach in that it would be an interesting experiment to display pornography and see how people respond to that. I’m all for freedom of speech, but it would be interesting to see if people still make the same arguments if pornography was displayed.

  6. jeanrichmann Says:

    Undoubtably, John Stuart Mill would agree with the pro-life protest in the diag. Mill believes in the idea of freedom of expression and that silencing one’s opinion could cause suppression of valuable knowledge. However, what Mill failed to address is the action of freedom of expression when it harms others.

    The very graphic images displayed in the diag were disturbing and unnecessary. Seeing such grotesque pictures while walking to a morning class is not something I enjoy. Yes, there were signs displaying that there were “graphic images ahead” yet the images could be seen before the sign could be read. Even if a student read the sign and decided they did not want to view the protest, because it occurred in such a central location, they had to choice but to walk right past it. I can’t imagine going through with an abortion, and then being forced to see large graphic signs claiming that you were a murderer and apart of a genocide. This display caused much harm comparable to the emotional distress of hate crimes. Harmful opinions should be suppressed for the individual rights of others.

    Not only did this display harm individual students, but the University itself. Many potential student visitors were touring the campus, to which the guides had to apologize extensively for the display taking place on the diag, and to reassure parents and students that such violent images are not normally displayed. As a student or parent visiting Michigan, seeing such a display could be very upsetting and possibly affect the decision of a student considering the University.

    I am not arguing against freedom of expression. I believe that freedom of expression is essential in a successful democratic society. However, there are some alternatives the pro-life protest could have chosen. For example, such violent images and accusing statements cause harm to many individuals. Placing the display in an area that could have been avoided would have been more appropriate to avoid personal harm. The actual statements and images could have also been more appropriate for a public display. Accusing a person of something does not change their beliefs, rather it creates a wall for personal defense. The large signs displayed more likely had an affect of angering students thus pushing them more towards pro-choice. Changing these things could have created a more tasteful and less harming protest.

  7. bmjasper Says:

    Great post. I actually found it fascinating how powerful that group’s demonstration was on U of M students. While the images on display were grotesque and upsetting, it was a dramatic change of pace from what we are usually exposed to, which I believe is why it was so successful. Think about it, how often do we all go out of our ways to avoid those god-fearing preachers in the Diag from telling us all that we are going to hell? No one really wants to be yelled at at 9 AM… And while nobody really wanted to see disturbing images of unborn fetuses, we all couldn’t help but stare. The method of demonstration was brilliant. It imidiately captured the mind’s and attentions of just about every student on campus, while effectively stirring up a campus-wide debate. Regardless of what they were side you’re on, I think we can all say that it was well done.

  8. tylerhoffman1 Says:

    Your application of Mill’s views are accurate, anyone, no matter who they are or what they stand for, should be able to express themselves. There is a caveat to that though. You fail to mention a key aspect of the Diag Display, the content of the boards put up. The photographs of abused, aborted and dead human beings was very disturbing. The boards were not physically violent, but in an emotional sense, they were very violent. Mill’s does not support violence when expressing views, and although the pro-life activists were not engaging in physical violence, their boards expressed more than words alone. It was disrespectful to say the least. As said in an earlier comment, anything can and should be expressed, but it needs to be tastefully done. In my opinion, physical violence is no worse than the images that were displayed. The activists should have utilized alternative methods to get their point across rather than posting photographs of such disturbing material.

    Although I am not Jewish, I have sympathy for anyone that felt emotional turmoil due to the comparison of abortion and the holocaust that was on the display boards. This comparison is completely unrelated and unnecessary, with the significant Jewish population attending this school, I’m surprised that no physical violence occurred.

    All in all, it does not matter what side of abortion you are on, there are tasteful ways to express anything. Unfortunately, the pro-life activists ruined their reputation by engaging in emotional violence and trying to relate events that had no correlation to abortion. To see the images was very disturbing, more should have been done to warn individuals who did not want to see the boards.

  9. Courtney Says:

    Even a week later, every time I walk in the Diag, I have a flashback to the grotesque images from the anti-abortion protest. Despite differences in our opinions on abortion, I feel as though the majority of the student body can agree that the presentation was tacky, inappropriate, unprofessional, and disturbing. However, that is not the point. The demonstration was completely in the bounds of freedom of expression, despite the negative reaction to it.

    As everyone has already pointed out, Mill holds the opinion that the only time freedom of speech can be denied is if it brought about harm to others. In theory, this sounds great! But when put into practice, it merely creates a slippery slope in severely limiting the freedom of speech. What is considered “harmful” is so subjective, that just about anything could fall into the category. Denying people their right to expression because some people find it insulting or disturbing is simply unfair and completely unreasonable.

  10. remiforster Says:

    This post brings up a very good point. I was in fact nodding my head during your first paragraph and then shaking my head during the second paragraph. While of course I believe in Mill’s arguments for freedom of expression, I believe that there is a limitation on how to go about such controversial and touchy issues.

    Being such a liberal campus as University of Michigan is, many students were disgusted by this exhibit. Freedom of expression should of course be allowed but in a way that does not harm others. Students who had abortions could have walked through the Diag that day and saw emotionally disturbing pictures of dead babies and even worse than seeing these pictures it was then implied that they support genocides. Comparing these pictures of dead babies to The Holocaust is absolutely absurd. I know many people whose family members were killed during The Holocaust and seeing abortion compared to this mass murder is very offensive and hurtful.

    While I do support freedom of expression, I believe that there are certain situations in which it needs to be monitored. There are already certain times that people cannot say whatever they feel. For example, at my high school we weren’t allowed to wear hats and certain websites were blocked on the Internet while using the school computers. I don’t believe that my freedom of expression was restricted in these situations. I just believe that there are certain times when it is necessary to limit freedom of expression in order to avoid hurting others.

    There is a tasteful and proper way to go about expressing our opinions and the grotesque exhibit in the Diag is not one of them. Although there were signs that warned students of the graphic photos, there was not much students could do to get to class on time and avoid the display. However, it is quite obvious that this pro-life group did a successful job getting their point across. Everyone saw those pictures in the Diag and many people then continued to discuss the topic of abortion.

  11. guysnick Says:

    While the pro-life demonstration in the Diag on October 3, 2011, was undeniably gruesome, shocking, and arguably offensive to some, I do agree that the anti-abortion protestors were justified in their demonstration. And while John Stuart Mill might not have agreed with the stance these activists were taking on the issue of abortion, he would most certainly have supported their right to set up a display on the campus of the University of Michigan, a public institution. As many people have pointed out, Mill said in the second chapter of his work On Liberty, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race.” Mill emphasized that every opinion, whether right or wrong in the end, has value. To silence an opinion would be to prevent the rest of mankind from experiencing the benefits of such a potentially valuable opinion.

    This post also brought to mind one of the famous quotes by the French philosopher Voltaire, who said, “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I believe this quote is quite relevant to the issue addressed in this post and also to Mill’s arguments in On Liberty. What Voltaire is emphasizing is that a person does not have to agree with another’s stance or opinion on an issue in order to support his or her right to express this stance or opinion. Likewise, we do have to agree with what the anti-abortion activists were saying or inferring (i.e. that abortion is comparable to the holocaust), but they were certainly justified in demonstrating on the Diag.

    This being said, I am also in accordance with the many people have said that the pro-life demonstrators could have made their point in a more appropriate fashion. I do not really think it was necessary to put up giant bloody pictures of dismembered fetuses, especially next to pictures of the holocaust, in the middle of a college campus. But I wasn’t so much offended by the gory pictures as I was by the actions of some of the activists themselves. First, I want to say that most of the demonstrators were not doing anything to instigate trouble or stir up an argument. However, while I was walking by the Hatcher library that morning, I did notice that a couple of the activists were getting into pretty heated arguments with passersby. One was even yelling, telling the other person he was completely wrong. To me, this is unacceptable. Peaceful protest (which they did for the most part) is absolutely fine, but getting angry and yelling at those with opposing viewpoints is not. As both Mill and Voltaire would agree, every opinion has value.

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