“Freedom to propose the outrageous and challenge the ordinary is as essential for individual liberty as it is for society’s collective knowledge and understanding of the world to advance.”
(Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, 2016, p. 5)
This past year I have reflected a lot about the importance of free speech. It seems that our society oscillates between two extremes–the outrageously offensive and the outrageously correct.
Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence.
On the one hand, there are people who choose to exercise their freedom to speak in offensive ways that will create outrage. Others do not want to hear what they have to say, because it is hateful. They do not want to listen to derogatory remarks or discriminatory comments. They do not want to be subjected to the ugliness of prejudice and the meanness it creates.
This is understandable.
The problem is that these people often respond to outrageously offensive speech by being outrageously correct. I say “outrageously correct,” because their efforts to avoid the problematic language of those they dislike leads them to censor the speech of others. They correct incorrect speech by refusing to let the outrageously offensive say what they want to say. They riot. They threaten. They destroy. They become like the very people they despise.
Or, they pretend that what has been said was not said. They revise history. They revise literature. They clean up the vocabularies we use to tell the stories of our past, present, and future.
The fact remains, however, that our society is a mess, and always has been. People have always been complicated. The world has always been full of conflict and corruption. When confronted with the upsetting realities of everyday life, we cannot ignore the disputes that continue to divide us. We cannot plug our ears and pretend they don’t exist.
Because it is when we ignore the problem, that it begins to grow. When we throw away free speech, we buy into a logic that undermines our own right to speak up and address the issues we care about. Hiding rotten thoughts will not stop the rot from spreading. In fact, it may even increase the extent of the contamination. If we truly want to have productive conversations, we have to start by acknowledging the need for free speech even in circumstances when that speech is bad or ugly. For it is in contrast to the bad and the ugly, that the good will be shown to its clearest advantage. It is when the rot is exposed that we can most effectively deal with it.
Think about it. If people are giving away free samples, which would you accept: the good, the bad, or the ugly?
This is a question facing universities today. People are struggling to negotiate the extremes of offensiveness and correctness. Oftentimes, they are afraid to say what they really think because of the consequences that might follow. What if professors don’t agree with their students beliefs and punish them for it? What if the student is triggered by something that is said? What if someone misunderstands or files a complaint that results in the termination of employment? What will the admissions committee think if someone posts this on Facebook or Tweets about it? These are all things people tend to consider when deciding when or when not to speak.
The question at the back of their minds is: What is the price we will pay for what we have to say?
My question, which is shared by many others, is: What is the price we will pay if we don’t?
If we sacrifice free speech, what will it cost us as a society?
To advance we need to sample a range of ideas and select the best. We need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly side by side.
Only then, can we effectively deal with the problems before us. Only then, can we negotiate the issues that keep us from advancing.
Thank you for taking the time to sample these thoughts today.