The Free Speech Conundrum

One would need to have been living under an extraordinarily large rock over the past couple of decades to be unaware of the ongoing war between the advocates of free speech and those of “political correctness”. On the one hand we have those who insist that it is sometimes both useful and necessary to express thoughts and opinions that differ—and, as a result, may offend some—because listening to all sides of an issue is a necessary precursor to the intellectual rigor that leads to good judgment and decisions. On the other hand we have those who are equally insistent that we must banish all words and thoughts that make anyone uncomfortable in order to create a society where all feel welcome and valued because to cause anyone to feel criticized or excluded is both wrong and wrongheaded.

These battle lines have formed virtually everywhere we look, and the controversies these opposing ideas cause inevitably crop up in our neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, and workplaces. When these conflicts arise, government is often called upon to act as an arbiter and write rules that govern our daily interactions with one another—an increasingly expansive mandate guaranteed to offend those who dislike restrictions on their freedom of speech. Although “speech codes” are increasingly a facet of our lives, I generally frown upon these because, while recognizing there is a clear difference between discussing and insulting, I agree with those who believe that we need to sometimes suffer the idiocy of the few to protect the rights of the many.

Many claim that the surprising—some might say shocking—victory of Donald Trump was fueled by the rejection of politically correct cultural norms on the part of a large portion of the electorate. This has, in turn, led many to conclude that racists and misogynists determined the outcome of the election, which seems to have hardened opinions on both sides. Rather than lead to a reasoned discussion of the appropriate balance between open expression and respectful behavior, the 2016 Presidential election has caused advocates on both sides to simply snarl at one another while lobbing charges of “intolerance” across the great divide.

It would be foolish to claim that, for example, racism and misogyny do not exist in our nation; there is no doubt that some voted as they did because of Hillary Clinton’s gender or Barack Obama’s race. However, it is equally nonsensical to assert that Donald Trump’s victory was due to nothing other than sheer bigotry. To do so would be to ignore widespread discontent with the outsourcing of jobs, the cost and management of government programs, terrorism at home and abroad, immigration policy, and the cataclysmic failures of the Affordable Care Act. The positions of most voters, if you take the time to speak to them, are quite nuanced and thoughtful, and to paint those who voted one way or another with an overly broad brush is, I believe, a demonstration of one’s inability to recognize the validity of opposing viewpoints.

I will readily admit that I am a fierce proponent of free speech, but I also recognize that people sometimes deliberately use words to wound rather than enlighten. Simply as a matter of common courtesy and human consideration for the feelings of others, we should always frame our disagreements and discussions in a manner that avoids unnecessary hurt and pointless invective. Insult is the shortcut of the intellectually weak, and it should not be a surprise—although it is scarcely a comfort—when we are subjected to a barrage of f-bombs from someone who cannot otherwise figure out how to express their feelings or beliefs.

However, insult is not solely the purview of the uneducated; our college and university campuses are far too well known today for the flame throwing rhetoric aimed at those who have the audacity to challenge the herd. If, despite your education, you are unable to convince someone of your point of view on the merits of your argument, characterizing those who believe something different than you as idiots or bigots is often a sign of intellectual laziness that is not much different from that of the buffoon who showers curses upon those who disagree.

Explaining what you think—and why—to others is time-consuming and occasionally maddening. Even worse, sometimes our cherished values and beliefs collide with an alternate reality that shocks and angers us because we have not been exposed to viewpoints that are different from our own. Our entirely understandable egocentricity leads us to believe that we are right and others are wrong, but this natural bias seems to me to have been exacerbated in recent years by cultural patterns that encourage insularity. We more and more listen only to people and information that reinforce our existing viewpoints, and we are increasingly confident that wrapping ourselves in a smug bubble is appropriate because those who think differently are not merely people with contrary ideas—they are ignorant and downright nasty.

The various bubble worlds that we inhabit are intensely self-comforting, but they are also dangerous and damaging. Any time we close our ears and our minds to ideas other than our own, we put ourselves and others at risk, eliminate the possibility of functional compromises, ratchet up the level of societal discord—and wall ourselves off from the possibility of personal growth.

Most of us probably don’t have to work very hard to think of examples of people and situations where we felt that our viewpoints were dismissed out of hand because they contradicted someone’s accepted narrative. I’ve experienced this a number of times recently, and I can tell you that it’s pretty darned upsetting to be denigrated because you believe something different. Still worse, to have the other person, the more you try to reasonably explain your viewpoint, grow more inflexible can be terribly disheartening.

I believe most would agree that to refuse to listen to someone and insist that you are absolutely correct is not only incredibly disrespectful—it is also quite arrogant and annoying—and we should all avoid behaving in this manner. Speaking as an educator, I find it frustrating if this happens with students, but it is doubly disturbing when I encounter this problem with colleagues whose job is, by definition, supposed to be about keeping an open mind and seeking to broaden the understanding of others. When the teachers decide that believing or teaching only one side of an issue is A-OK, we have crossed a line that calls into question the very purpose of our profession.

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