Perceptions of manliness and bravery influenced Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — an important figure protecting the rights of speech — according to John M. Kang, author and professor of Constitutional Law at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla.
On October 30 in Kemper Auditorium, Kang presented “Prove Yourself: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Obsessions of Manliness.” Kang focused on Holmes’ life and views.
Kang began the presentation by explaining the importance of Holmes — not to be confused with his father, Oliver Wendell Holmes, after whom the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library (OWHL) is named.
“Here’s what [Holmes] said: ‘I’m looking for an America that believes in something. I want people to have faith in something’… [Holmes] introduced this notion of real manliness and not being afraid of the conclusion that you’re probably going to die a violent death,” said Kang in his presentation.
Kang argued that many of Holmes’ opinions, especially regarding freedom of speech, were derived from Holmes’ idea of manliness and bravery. According to Kang, these ideals were highlighted particularly when Holmes dropped out of college to join the Civil War.
“He was kind of obsessed with [manliness]… He was shot three times and he was partly in love with violence. When he became an old man like me, he never really gave up that life. That obsession with violence manifested itself in his opinions,” said Kang in an interview with The Phillipian.
Kang went on to summarize Holmes’ opinions with the phrase “man up.” Holmes believed that Americans needed to be brave, or in other words, have the faith of a soldier. This transferred into his rulings regarding freedom of speech.
Holmes concluded that instead of silencing the speech of others, the public must learn to toughen up and disregard hateful opinions, according to Kang.
Kang said, “In a constitutional democracy people will often say things that are very scary. They will threaten to do terrible things to other people but [Holmes] still thought that the first amendment protected that right [to say it]. He wanted to encourage people to be manly and embrace physical danger, like the way he did.”
Holmes’ perspective, including that of speech, has followed into modern times. Prompted by panelists and audience members alike, Kang elaborated on the effect and application of Holmes’ position to recent issues.
Speech that provokes a clear and present danger, an exception to freedom of speech which Holmes popularized, was discussed in relationship to the current administration.
“And he says as long as [the speech] isn’t a clear and present danger, meaning it has to be imminent, now. [Holmes] gave rise to Trumpism as well as the people attacking Trumpism. It’s awful and offending and violent, but as long as it isn’t an imminent danger, Holmes would go ahead and permit it,” said Kang in his presentation.
Anna Aymar ’19, an attendee of the presentation, said she thought that with the incorporation of modern issues, Kang presented some fresh ideas.
“To me it was just really interesting to have someone so important to the United States, having his thoughts being applied to ideas of Andover or ideas of 2018. Having somebody who knows so much about him to be able to articulate those thoughts was really exciting for me,” Aymar said.
With repeated words such as “manliness” and Holmes’ emphasis on physical courage, the question of how women played into his ideology was brought up quite a few times. Kang argued Holmes’ statement on the public’s need to embrace, or at least tolerate, harmful speech applies to women as well. Women must “toughen up” the same as men do, they aren’t exempt from it. Additionally, Kang spoke about how the pressure to be brave was greater on men than women.
“Holmes is saying that this idea of manliness and bravery, he’s trying to suggest that if women are physically brave, they’re not rebuked for it. But if men are not physically brave, they are called cowards for that. I don’t think that men are more brave than women, I think that he would suggest that there’s a greater shame for men to not be brave,” said Kang in an interview with The Phillipian.
Kang concluded with ideas he believed Holmes would have wanted Andover students to know. Holmes would have liked students to be involved in direct political action. Many students from Andover go on to become a part of a corporation, a law firm, or a university, but Holmes would want them to take part in an elected office, according to Kang.
“Holmes will see it as if people don’t get involved in political action in a serious way, people who want to do the United States harm, they’ll get involved in it… Because there is no one who is looking out for the students, they have to take it upon themselves to protect each other. And in order to do that, you have to be really brave,” said Kang.
Kang, in the views of Holmes, explained that students, and society at large, must be aware that the there is no king, president, or Supreme Court that will be able to protect you. In Holmes’ gendered mind, the only way to protect each other was through manliness and physical bravery, according to Kang.
Kang said, “I think some of the students might think that we have a president that is not helping us, who is, in some sense, potentially endangering us… I think that Holmes would present that he might not be on our side and you guys have to be brave, no matter the consequences, and do something about that.”