Is It Hate Speech or Just Ignorance?

04/13/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

My institution has been in an uproar over a visit from Dr. Ben Carson, who was invited when he was known for being a surgeon, before he became famous as a Tea-Partyer; before he reasoned that same-sex couples' right to marry was no more justifiable than marriage rights for pedophilic "man-boy love"; before he implied that prison sex was so irresistibly appealing as to make straight people change their sexual orientations after trying it.

A number of left-leaning students and alums protested his coming, while some faculty signed a letter to the college expressing concern that Dr. Carson's ill-formed and ahistorical comments on such matters were unworthy of the kind of critical thinking we seek to instill in our students. It stopped short of demanding that his invitation be rescinded. Unsurprisingly, a number of right-leaning alums (with deep pockets) pushed back, along with several students and at least one faculty member.

I signed the original faculty letter. I also attended Dr. Carson's talk with students from my sophomore seminar, wearing marriage equality t-shirts that one of them had made in silent protest. He said nothing particularly controversial or even interesting in his speech; he talked mostly about his life (a glorious pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story), while making a few jibes at progressives for being overly sensitive and censorious. During the Q&A he reiterated that marriage is for a man and a woman, but hastened to add that other couples still deserve constitutional rights.

I disagree with his excessively individualistic worldview. But I think he had a point about the hair-trigger reactions that arise in political conversations. As a scholar of religion I am perhaps more inured than most academics to people expressing religious opinions. So when I hear Dr. Carson talk about "definitions of marriage" or feminism being "the me generation," I don't hear his comments rising to the level of "hate speech." It sounds to me like standard, conservative fare to harp on about "traditional family values" -- never mind whose tradition. (Indeed I found this earlier speaker much more inflammatory.)

No, I hear Ben Carson's comments as the kinds of ignorant things people often say without thinking. Has he actually researched the legal or even biblical history behind the "definition of marriage" that he so firmly upholds? Is he an expert sexologist or ethicist? Can he offer any real evidence to demonstrate that feminism caused Ferguson's tumultuous year? Of course not. But as far as I can tell, none of these comments prove that he's a hater; he's just a surgeon with "gifted hands" who is exceptionally good at anatomical mechanics but -- like most Americans -- rather lazy in his ethical reasoning.

I was encouraged to hear from a student, the president of our LGBTQ+ student organization, that Dr. Carson asked her how he might express himself better in the future so as not to be so hurtful with his words. She even said she would enjoy spending more time with him because he was so down to earth. On one hand, I wish it was not the job of a college student to explain to a senior citizen how better to express himself. On the other, I am inclined to see his visit to our community as a raging success, in so far as it sparked more open debate than I have ever heard in my years here.

Dr. Carson suggested that all of us could use "thicker skin" if we are going to engage in any fruitful national conversations. I think he's mostly right about that, with one caveat: It is incumbent upon all of us to be better listeners, especially in the areas where our identities are privileged. I can be quite thin-skinned about women's issues, but I have great privilege when it comes to race and class; Dr. Carson certainly knows racial discrimination, but he has privilege when it comes to gender, religion and sexual orientation. It would be foolish to tell African Americans not to be sensitive about race, to tell Jews not to be sensitive about religion or to tell Sikhs not to be sensitive about airport checks. Likewise, it is foolish for a straight, married man to tell lesbians and gay men not to be sensitive about marriage.

Peace in our time depends upon all of us becoming more sensitive to the fact that others' sensitivities are different than our own. In the meantime, perhaps we can at least not pretend to be experts on hot button issues that are only peripheral in our own lives.