To speak freely is to express opinions and beliefs without censorship or restraint. This right is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is trumpeted in the laws of the majority of sovereign nations across the globe. However, distinctions are required: freedom of speech is not freedom to speak without opposition and it is not the freedom to speak without consequence. The right, which stands engraved in the laws of every sovereign Western state, protects one from physical harm or censorship for voicing their opinion – not from enduring the reactions their writing or speech provokes, in both relationship and professional settings.
This definition, while seemingly tedious, is necessary to establish a common base of understanding of what it means to have the write to speak freely. A line exists in the traditional discussion between a legal right and a cultural norm. It is in the realm of cultural norms that the debate emerges. The question is whether cultural censorship poses harm to reasoned civil discourse and debate. Giving a voice to the traditionally ignored has provided an exceptional benefit to society by adding voices to debate and creating a world that more equitably serves all of who live in it. But a second perspective, often an especially loud one, bemoans a loss of ability to speak with impunity on all subjects. This is often attributed to the creation of a new cultural norm of being overly politically correct.
To be politically correct means, in the literal sense, the use of language or measures to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups of society. But the term has morphed into a rallying cry of the political right and a point of contention for the political left in the Western world. The divide between students and faculty on university campuses in the West is stark: students believe they are standing in the fact of bigotry and hatred, refusing to indulge the musings of provocateurs and provide platforms to those who spread messages of division. Faculty and staff believe that this ideological isolationism is draining an entire generation of the ability to reasonably debate while creating an academic environment that does not encourage personal growth or evolution of thought.
One consistent theme woven throughout think pieces and news articles is a firm endorsement of an individual’s right to protest, another expression of freedom of speech that can be used to counter undesirable ideas. Non-violent protest has been and is used every day to amplify messages or spread an agenda, often in the face of authoritarian regimes to demand freedom or equality. Effective protest in essential to a democratic institution (hence the freedom to assembly) – but a line exists: if the freedom of an individual to speak encroaches upon the freedom of another to do the same, it itself may amount to censorship. Additionally, breaking any law during a protest still amounts to an illegal activity. If protest threatens harm, destroys property or creates an unsafe environment, it moves beyond the realm of freedom of speech and must be treated accordingly.
Any group or institution seeking to repress the freedom to speak is an illiberal one. The right to speak freely is fundamental to the rule of law. An unwillingness to debate certain ideas has created a culture wherein these ideas are rejected, but not refuted. This lack of public debate around certain subjects creates an atmosphere of tension whenever they arise and fails to appropriately deconstruct them to the degree where society at large can take informed positions. If the only discussion heard surrounding a social or cultural issue stems from a single ideological view, it is impossible to truly claim to understand all sides of any issue.
A second, more subtle, trend has emerged: a desire to label ideas and the individuals or groups who espouse them. When an idea is deemed to be hateful (racist/sexist/misogynistic/homophobic etc.), a tendency exists to label the individual voicing these ideas to be equally loathsome. This is dangerous. Conflating ideas with character is both isolating for those accused and often ignores the reality that hatred stems from ignorance, which can be cured. If we as a society continue to treat certain ideas as worthy of rejection of a person, three things will occur: these ideas will never be said out loud for fear of being rejected. Individuals will have a greater fear of being labelled as hateful than of holding biased views, for fear of being spurned. And individuals who hold these views will feel rejected from society at large.
Creating environments that do not allow for open discussion has a sinister effect of discouraging people from asking hard questions for fear of being pushed away. Only when discussion can be open, only when ideas are debated in public can opinions be changed and society truly move forward. The alternative? We begin to associate more with ideologues who have a perceived freedom to speak openly. We conflate our desire to voice our views without fear of being rejected with having extreme views. And we fail to listen to those who we felt never listened to us.
“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
“I want you to be offended every single day. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”