A thousand years ago, when the poet, Egil Skallagrimson lost his son to the sea, he wrote this:

Most woeful the breach,
Where the wave in-brake
On the fenced hold
Of my father’s kin.
Unfilled, as I wot,
And open doth stand
The gap of son rent
By the greedy surge.

Of course, he didn’t write it in English, and we aren’t obliged to treat the translation available in the public domain as inviolate. We might, instead, rephrase it like this: The breach the wave made in the fence of my father’s kin, is unfilled–I know–and a son-shaped hole, torn by the greedy sea, stands open.

I find that imagery both beautiful and heartbreaking: the gap of son in his family’s kin fence. To see your family as your first line of protection against the world, that web of relationships keeping you from harm, coupled with the grief at losing a son, it’s pretty moving.

Let’s come back to this.

One of the unexpected things that’s been sticking in my craw from my exchange with the Legal Eagle is the issue of the role of the university. Is the university a forum for the free exchange of ideas? Is the university’s primary role that of the shaper of young minds? If I believed those things, I think I’d have to rethink my position on Ann Coulter.

But I don’t think the university’s first obligation is to ideas or students.

I had to go digging around in the attic of the English language to find a word that gets at what I think the university’s first obligation is, but I finally found it, in a box marked “Common Teutonic,” the word Frith.

I think the university’s first obligation is to maintain the frith of the community.

Frith is in the OED, and Oxford defines it as “peace, freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security,” and as a verb, “to keep in peace, make peace with; to secure from disturbance, help, preserve, protect.”

In its Anglo Saxon form–freod–it has to do with peace, friendship, good will and affection. In Old English, the word was “freo,” which means “free.”

It comes from the Indo-European root “pri,” which means to love. In another Germanic form, it is *frijaz–beloved and, interestingly, “belonging to the loved ones.”

As well as free, it’s related to filibuster, afraid, and Friday (from the Germanic compound *frije-dagaz or “day of Frigg,” who is, of course, Odin’s beloved.)

Here we get a sense of the true scope of Egil’s grief. Freedom for him is not an absence of responsibility to anyone but himself. Freedom–his peace, safety, and security–is bound up in his belonging to the people who love him and who he loves. The loss of his son to the sea, leaving no body to put in the family grave, is a personal loss and a loss to everyone in frith with him.

To circle back to the university and maintaining the frith of the university community, I’m not arguing that everyone at the university has to love each other. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because the opposite is true–that you have all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds who all aren’t going to get along under normal circumstances–that the university has an obligation to establish and maintain frith.

Under this paradigm, everyone who is a member of the university community–faculty, staff, and students–has a right and an obligation to expect maintained peace and safety and to contribute to that atmosphere.

With the maintenance of frith as the goal, a student has a right and obligation to sit in the classroom and learn what his or her instructor has to teach. An instructor has a right and an obligation to teach his or her students the intended materials. Discussions and even disagreements are to be encouraged, because they further the goal of learning and teaching the materials, but personal attacks, disruptive and disrespectful behavior, and idiocy that wastes the class’s time don’t have to be tolerated, because they break frith.

Staff members have a right and an obligation to insist on respectful behavior from the administration and faculty. And though academia is full of rugged individuals and their oversized egos, for the sake of the university community, these egos are kept in check. And, if they’re not, for the health of the community, the egos are encouraged to be someone else’s problem.

The lively exchange of ideas among members of the university community is exceedingly important to the well-being of the community, but also fraught with danger, because attacks on ideas so quickly become attacks on people. Establishing and maintaining frith allows for disagreements, even raucous ones, because everyone involved has the assurance that everyone is working towards the same goal–right relationship with each other.

True enough that no one in the university as it is right now gives a shit about establishing and maintaining frith. And so it’s probably true that my objection to inviting Ann Coulter to campus is not only antique, it’s beside the point.

But, I think giving her a forum breaks frith. It doesn’t put the health and well-being of the community first, because she doesn’t merely disagree with ideas, she viciously attacks people. It doesn’t encourage thoughtful discussion, because she’s a sloppy thinker. And though I’m sure some campus conservatives feel that her speaking on campus will give voice to their concerns in a way that cannot be ignored, I don’t believe she’s in right-relation with other conservatives, so I have my doubts about whether their concerns are her concerns.

Discussions had in frith, such as the Legal Eagle’s and my longwinded argument, can change people’s minds–in some cases, though not ours–or they can provide a useful tool for helping each person understand the shape and contour of her beliefs. Both are important potential outcomes.

It’s rare, on the other hand, that any good comes from any activity which deliberate breaks frith.

6 thoughts on “Frith

  1. So I think I am struggling a little understanding frith. On the one hand I completely agree with most of what I read here – that we have obligations to each other and to a larger community, obligations about fairness, safety, even love of some kind. But is that the point of the university or just one thing that has to be present and operative in meeting the mission? Is there actually a difference between those two things?

    I looked up the missions of the universities I have attended and taught at. And, it’s true that none of them expressly say anything about free and open discussion in a way that I think supports the Legal Eagle’s defense of Ann Coulter. Interestingly, the religiously affiliated ones think the university’s mission is to find the truth (for the greater glory of God in the service of humanity). The private but not religious one is about increasing knowledge but avoids any claims to truth. Then, I looked at some big public university missions, which might come a little closer to defending the LE. But, I think it’s still more complicated because even they are about intellectual development to enrich and elevate society. So, at best, he can make a claim that free and open discussion of the kind he suggests is a condition for the possibility of meeting the mission(s). Sadly though, that might be the same claim I am making (albeit in question form) about frith.

    I do defend freedom of speech, and I do believe that exploring more ideas is always better than less. However, that we all have the right to speak does not mean that anyone has a right to speak this here now or that anyone has to listen. Further, certain conditions must be met in order that freedom is maintain. So if your speech actually undermines someone else’s (you say gays or blacks or women are inferior and shouldn’t have equal rights), then you don’t have the right to speak it. Second, bad ideas or badly expressed and argued for positions might not expand our knowledge at all and we might not benefit from entertaining them. In fact, we might be worse off and thus should not have to listen to them.

    So I guess what this is all supposed to be getting at is a clarificatory question about frith and how it is a condition of possibility or an actual goal.

  2. I guess what I was trying to say, perhaps inartfully, is that ultimately the free exchange of ideas – all ideas, even the dumb ones – is a condition precedent for true learning. And as the goal of all universities that I am aware of is first and foremost the intellectual development of their students (what is the search for truth via god if not another way of saying the same thing? although some may not believe in god, for those that do, true knowledge comes only through the contemplation of the divine). I really don’t believe that the exposure to bad/dumb ideas has the effect of dumbing down the entire discourse, simply because an idea cannot be understood until it can be defended.

    And that, at least to me, is the point of the university, to teach people not to have ideas, because anyone can have ideas, but to be able to articulate and defend those ideas. The “why” a belief or idea is held is more important than the belief or idea, itself. Because if you do not know why you believe something, how can you say that truly believe it?

    The problem I have with the censoring of people like Coulter, moreso than Hale, but, him to, is that who decides whose ideas have merit? While I agree that public discourse should not devolve to the scream down, name calling invective, of which Coulter and her ilk have descended, apart from that, she does present ideas that a large number of people agree with. Even Hale has a following and professes ideas that, until relatively recently in this country, were accepted. I simply do not trust the administration of faculty in the modern university setting to be open enough to allow the free range of ideas. While I am sure Coulter was selected to speak precisely because she is inflammatory and a large number of people hate her, if their rightful anger can be channeled into constructive discourse, has she not served her purpose? A purpose that may not have been served by someone less irksome.


  3. Good question. Though I don’t know, I think the one thing the Legal Eagle and I might agree on is that you can’t really take what a University says is its mission as the real purpose of the university.

    I mean, your university claims it is “a center for scholarly research, informed and creative teaching, and service to the community and society at large. [It] will uphold the highest standards and be a leader in the quest for new knowledge through scholarship, dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach, creative experimentation of ideas and concepts. In pursuit of these goals, [it] values most highly intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry, equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors.”

    How does keeping groundskeepers busy planting and unplanting flowers further any of that? How does paying them less than a living wage?

    Anyway, I was talking about the role of the university being the establishment and maintenance of frith. I’m not sure that the role of the university is the same thing as its mission or its point.

    The mission of the university might be that PR bunk I just quoted and the point of the university might be to spur all kinds of intellectual inquiry, but the role the university ought to take in achieving its mission or making its point, ought to be one of establishing and maintaining frith.

    In the meantime, I see that the LE has shown up and finally pointed out the obvious flaw with my objection (thanks for leaving it alone as long as you did), which is “who decides whose ideas have merit?”

    Clearly, I’m the best possible person to make those decisions, because of my obvious brilliance, but I just don’t have the time to weight in on all matters of importance.

    Otherwise, we do get into some murkiness, which frith does not clear up. Being in right-relation with others doesn’t guarantee that your end goals would be just and that your decisions would necessarily be wise.


  4. well now who is the philosopher? you have done such a nice job making distinctions and defining terms. But it does help me understand what you are saying and to locate the distance between you (and me) and the Legal Eagle. Each of our third paragraphs seem to get at it (if I can be so bold as to think that maybe I was hinting at something like frith there).

    What makes a bad argument bad? And what are the consequences of those bad arguments? Various fallacies, including ad hominems, make arguments bad. And, those kinds of personal attacks are not only irrational but harmful and breaks frith.

    Of course, I must admit that the LE is operating from a realization that Spinoza would be proud of – that sometimes we need to move people where they are and accoring to passion, not with reason. Yet, he also says that we need to respond to hate with greater love.

    By the way, I think that I am the one who decides which ideas have merit!

  5. I can’t help but think that putting the Legal Eagle in the same league is going to make dinner for the Corporate Shill tonight pretty unbearable.

    At least, I’ll be imagining a dinner in which he answers every one of her questions with, “I’m sorry, today I’m operating from a position Spinoza would be proud of. I can move you according to passion, but not reason.”

    That would be hilarious.

    Okay, maybe only to me.

  6. Except that she can be moved by neither, and usually movement is the result of a sharp jab in the ribs.


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