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A response to the faculty letter of support for the right to protest and dissent

May 3, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

I admire and appreciate both students’ efforts to combat injustice and suffering and my colleagues’ efforts to craft a statement addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict and student responses to this conflict.

I also appreciate and affirm my colleagues’ support for free speech and discourse on campus. In the spirit of this shared value, I hope that those reading this appreciate my attempt at respectful engagement. I feel compelled to note a few reactions to their letter.

First, free speech is not an absolute right—speech that is disruptive or threatening to others is typically prohibited, and violating these prohibitions naturally entails consequences. I realize this is a well-known point, but I think it should be acknowledged here. Some protesters might be willing to break these rules in the interest of making a stronger statement, and excessive disciplinary actions should be condemned, but that does not imply that enforcement of rules should be categorically condemned or described as retaliatory. I applaud Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Bowdoin for adherence to our community’s rules, which has helped to maintain safety and avoid escalation of tension on campus. Moreover, if the College were to take an institutional position on this issue, it could inhibit freedom of expression here. I hope that community members with opinions that differ from those stated in the referendum feel comfortable sharing their disagreement, but I fear this is not the case.

Second, we should be very skeptical of our feelings of moral clarity—especially for incredibly complex conflicts like Israel-Palestine. There is a vast social science literature on our human tendency to overestimate the certainty and objectivity of our views in general, perhaps especially for moral issues. Complex conflicts often spiral and become even more complex due to both sides falsely believing they have moral clarity.

That’s not to say that moral clarity is unattainable. But it must be earned through critical scrutiny of competing arguments, especially those we are predisposed to hold and those held by people around us. Critical thinking development is often said to be a key part of a Bowdoin education; this means being critical of our own views in addition to those held by others.

Thank you all for your peaceful and respectful engagement on this difficult issue!

Daniel Stone is an associate professor of economics at Bowdoin. 


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