A plea for free speech
(The author speaking at a university in Taiwan on the topic of Feminist Politics in the Middle East)
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
In John Stuart Mill’s view, other people, no matter how numerous or powerful, simply have no right to prevent you from thinking freely or expressing your thoughts. Mill went further, saying that silencing speech was not only an offense against those who are prevented from speaking, but also against those prevented from hearing them. Across societies and across history, few cultures have valued free speech much, which is exactly what makes the freedom found on US campuses, this unprecedented liberty of expression, so unique. For many Americans, speech is primary, it is the first freedom, without which the others could not exist. A society where expressing unpopular ideas means you will be fired from your job, exposed and derided in the media, and shunned by the community is not the kind of free speech society Mill described in the quote above, which begs the question: what do we value more in our society: individual autonomy or enforced altruism? How can we come to know our world, our reality, if we do not allow individuals the responsibility to gain an understanding of how the world works and act on the basis of that knowledge? Exercising that responsibility requires social freedoms, and one of the social freedoms that we need is speech.
We have the capacity within ourselves to think, or not to. But that capacity can be hampered severely by a repressive social atmosphere of collective group-think, orthodoxy and a paralyzing fear of challenging the collective. We get all sorts of values from one another. If we are going to share and learn from each other and if we as educators are going to be able to teach others, then we need to be able to engage in certain kinds of social processes, like asking ridiculous questions, debate, criticism, lecturing, etc. But all of this presupposes an important social principle: that we will tolerate those things in our social interactions. Part of the price that we pay is that our feelings and our opinions will be bruised on a regular basis, but we live with these metaphorical bruises.
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.” ― Frederick Douglass
Of all the ideas percolating on (predominantly North American) college campuses these days, the most dangerous one might be that speech can equate to violence. We’re not talking about verbal threats of violence (which are used to coerce and intimidate) or libel, both of which are illegal and not protected by the First Amendment. We’re talking about speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that is otherwise upsetting to members of the group. Postmodernists try to put forth the argument that speech is action, as it propagates through the air and impinges upon the person’s ear who hears it. Technically, they are correct. Speech is physical. But there is a big quantitative difference between sound waves breaking over your body and a baseball bat breaking your bones. Both are physical, but the results of being hit by a bat involve consequences over which you have no control; the pain in not a matter of your interpretation. By contrast, how you interpret or respond to the sound waves breaking over you are entirely under your control. Whether you allow them to hurt your feelings depends on how you evaluate the interaction you are engaging in. There is a distinction between speech and action. I can say something that may hurt your feelings, but I can’t run up to you and hit you with a baseball bat. The government can, and should, come after me in the latter case but not in the former.
Speech is not violence. Treating it as such is an entirely interpretive choice and it is a choice that increases pain and suffering while preventing other, more effective responses. The idea that teaching and learning and education all best take place in an environment of free expression means that places of higher learning, colleges and universities, should be more free than the surrounding society, not less so. University students and faulty should be able to speak their minds more freely than people can in other professional environments. In fact, it should be a prerequisite for being on campus. Viewpoint diversity is necessary for the development of critical thinking, while viewpoint homogeneity (whether coming from the political left or right) leaves a community vulnerable to group-think and orthodoxy. It benefits us to be exposed to different ideas. Otherwise we become unable to defend and ultimately unable to understand the correct ideas we hold ourselves.
This is a list of just some of the academics who were disciplined or dismissed by their universities for their views or faced campaigns to silence them at their universities.
Professor Kathleen Lowrey at the University of Alberta;
Professor Gordon Klein, a lecturer in accounting at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management; Leslie Neal-Boylan, Dean of Nursing at UMass-Lowell;
Professor Patricia Simon of Marymont Manhattan College;
Lindsay Shepherd of Wilfrid Laurier University;
Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Meriwether at Shawnee State University;
Professor William A. Jaconson of Cornell University;
Dr. Louise Moody, Research Associate (Philosophy) at the University of York;
Professor of Philosophy Kathleen Stock of the University of Sussex.