In the United States, the debate over free speech has blown up on college campuses recently. This morning, a band of protestors blocked reporters from photographing the protest, despite its location in a public space. A few weeks ago, a school newspaper had its budget cut in half by the student government for printing allegedly offensive material (I read the article, and it was provocative but nowhere near entering the realm of hate speech/threatening language). My peers and I are being referred to as “The Swaddled Generation” with more and more frequency in the media. I am appalled.
Of course I don’t believe in absolute free speech- when people are being personally attacked, threatened, or having their reputation unfairly ruined by someone else’s words, that calls for disciplinary action on a college campus. I also acknowledge the fact that mental illness as a result of trauma is a very real and difficult thing that people struggle with, and things said in the presence of such people may be inappropriate and offensive that would otherwise be innocuous (though I believe such instances should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the solution is not to strip all “potentially offensive or triggering” language from all conversation).
Sadly, on college campuses, the aforementioned restrictions on free speech and expression are not unusual and egregious examples of hate speech. They are simply conservative or less popular viewpoints that do not embrace the most progressive and liberal opinions of those quieting them. Our generation seems to have adopted a quite tragic approach to disagreement: instead of arguing, we silence the opposition through force (which in most cases is achieved through funding cuts or the destruction of someone’s public reputation).
The reason I find this so sad is because of the irony in it: those silencing their opposition are doing so to spread their own viewpoint, but it’s backfiring. Do people expect to convert their opposition by ostracizing, condemning, and silencing them? Do they expect the virtue of their opinion to shine through restriction and domination of public debate?
No one concedes their viewpoint to that of another person because they’ve been attacked. Instead, when attacked and silenced for voicing their opinions, people get defensive and shut down. Their opposition becomes a personal threat, not just a conflicting perspective, so they buckle down against the opposition- for good.
We cannot to spread our ideas- those of tolerance, kindness, empathy, and progress- by destroying the ideas of others. Ideas cannot be destroyed. If we want to work towards a world that shares out good virtues, we must first understand why opposing views exist. To understand, we must listen. We must put our own opinions aside for a moment and truly hear out our opposition. Perhaps their views are based on a false assumption, childhood misunderstanding, or fear. Perhaps they grew up in a radically different society from our own, and don’t know any different. Once we understand why opposition exists, we can address it by sharing our own opinion and pursuing the most tolerant, kind, practical, and loving opinion together.
I have said and will say again and again in life: people want to be loved, appreciated, and understood. Once you give someone the ability to explain their ideas, without having to say a word, they will be infinitely more open to your viewpoint. As soon as people feel valued and listened to, they will be open. That feeling of value and understanding may take days, months, years to achieve- but the alternative to listening is accepting lifelong opposition.
When you hear someone say anything you disagree with, resist your first impulse to silence them. Resist the impulse to interrupt immediately with your perspective, no matter how wrong or twisted or unpopular their opinion is. Listen to them, ask questions when you get confused, and see if you can find the root of their belief in their explanation. If you can, gently point out the flaw in their logic (without blaming them). If you can’t, perhaps their viewpoint is equally valid- or maybe your own is incorrect.
In my opinion, the question really comes down to this: are we trying to strengthen the morals of our global community, or our own egos? Will we always fight together to find the truth and the good, or will we turn against each other to validate our personal egos, regardless of the truth of the matter?
Let us fight for truth. It is a battle that can only be fought together.