Robert Birch5 November 2017Free Speech and the Value of Discomfort The Earth is flat. The planets rotate around it. The moon landing was faked, and terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by members of our own government. Vaccines cause autism, some races are superiors to others, and the gender wage gap is a myth. The information I just presented is polarizing, not only because some of it is blatantly untrue, but because it’s downright offensive. However, after I type it out, I can post it for the world to see on Facebook or Twitter, safe in the knowledge that as an American citizen, I cannot be prosecuted for it. Of course, I will face criticism and objection.
I’ll be publicly lambasted in front of my friends and family, possibly even by them. But I won’t find myself in a concrete cell, because I am protected in my opinions by the First Amendment. Although I disagree with everything I stated in the opening of this essay, I do not disagree with my ability to say it. Free speech is vital to growth, not only as a country, but as a people.
The absence of free speech is guaranteed to bottleneck the ideas of the people into a single, collective set of ideas and opinions. A country without free speech merely seeks to create a platform used to indoctrinate agendas and ideologies into its population, cutting off the opportunity for creativity to flourish. A country like this simply cannot advance because, at its core, it’s the people who shovel the coal into the engine. And, if these people have been stripped of original thought, their faces ripped off and identities used as the stone making up the mosaic its leaders view as ideal, then that country is predestined to stagnate. However, that’s on a national level. What about our community? I’ve grown up in a small town where everyone knows each other, and most have been raised by parents of similar values. Of course, an adolescent’s opinions are shaped heavily by his or her parents. Growing up here, there is a fairly common thread of what is viewed as right and wrong.
Throughout adolescence, I began to see opinions on social media that conflicted with what I was taught as a child. At first, I discounted them, sometimes even going as far as to debate them. However, as I matured, I came to agree and identify with the very opinions I once rejected. Free speech has made me who I am, shaping my personality and values throughout my adolescence, and I am infinitely thankful for that. This is why I believe it’s important to be exposed to opinions and views of all angles, even if they oppose our own. It’s healthy to be made uncomfortable. Living in an artificial paradise where nobody ever challenges our views causes a rude awakening when they are inevitably rejected. It shouldn’t come as a culture shock to be disagreed with, so it’s important to expose young adults entering college to opinions, viewpoints and ideas that they may have not been exposed to in their hometown.
I’m sure there are many towns just like mine, where certain opinions are outliers and could even cause one to be ostracized for expressing them. A student from these towns may have grown up blindly believing what’s fed to them, either discounting differing opinions or never seeking them in the first place. Another may have disagreed at some point, but learned it was easier to conform rather than go against the grain. Colleges and universities have a duty to show these students that their opinions are valued, but are also able to be challenged. These students may come to realize that their values lie somewhere they never accounted for after attending a presentation or lecture, or possibly take refuge in the opportunity presented by college, finally and cathartically expressing themselves in ways they were previously unable to. Students should be given the opportunity to build a stronger sense of identity, but this cannot be accomplished without the college allowing it to. This is why a college that censors free speech is no place for the youth. It’s the time of our lives where our values are the most malleable, and never being given the chance to shape ourselves would be a shame.
The common argument here is that free speech can be weaponized for malicious purposes. Like in my first paragraph, the Constitution protects the ability to spread concepts that are disagreeable and detestable by many. This is where the people come in.
It’s our duty not to censor those who use free speech as an excuse to circulate destructive beliefs, but to not give them a soapbox in the first place. There will always be those who spit acid purely to watch the corrosion. It’s our duty as a people to differentiate between an opinion that conflicts with our own, and one that exists merely to spread malice. So why shouldn’t they be censored? If they were, what would we learn? If our thoughts were funneled through the use of censorship, filtered into what is considered right, the schism between right and wrong would distort. How could citizens differentiate between right and wrong when the only “wrong” we know is speaking against the ones who’ve made the decision for us? When presented with something innately evil, would we be able to recognize it as such? These are profound questions to ask, and I’m not equipped to answer them. But they’re certainly questions that would arise from the elimination of free speech.
It’s what makes the absence of free speech particularly terrifying in an educational setting; as I said before, the mind is at its peak of malleability during adolescence. It’s a time where being able to absorb new beliefs and express one’s own is imperative. So if free speech was rescinded, or worse, weaponized against these young minds, the end results may not only be scary, but catastrophic.