On this 4th of July weekend, as we in the United States celebrate the day that marks the creation of our nation as a free and independent state, I want to talk with you about a movement in western culture that I believe threatens our ability, as humans, to flourish. And that threat is the threat to the first freedom named in our constitution, which prohibits any law that would diminish our freedom of speech.
It’s a complex situation that we’re in, risen from a multitude of causes. Whole books have been written about it, both on its causes and its potential effects. And I certainly have no solution. But I believe that it’s important to talk about issues that endanger us in order to spread awareness and to encourage others to give the matter some serious thought, to decide for themselves what’s healthy and good, and to take a stand.
That last sentence kind of sums it up. We can only think about things that we can talk about, that we can put into words. The threat I’m talking about is a movement to silence all speech that contradicts the prevailing beliefs of a promoted group of people.
Sixty-seven years ago, in a message to Congress, then President Harry Truman stated the danger this way:
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
Today, it is not only governments that are passing laws about what may or may not be said, but growing segments of the populace itself who would stifle free speech. When we are no longer able freely to state our beliefs without fear of violent repercussions, we will degenerate into fearful silence. New ideas will die before they can be given birth in the public domain. Time-tested wisdom will be buried beneath the rubble of restriction. Truth will be shackled by the chains of a mandatory ideology. And we will no longer be free.
“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
Let Us Not Offend
One of the contributors to the current movement to suppress free speech is, ironically, based in kindness, or at least in a superficial understanding of what it means to be kind. It’s the idea that people are fragile and easily wounded by unkind words. We must, such thinking goes, root out from our language any words that have the potential to hurt another human being.
Thus, we have a Canadian government proclaiming that words such as “mother,” “father,” “him,” and “her” must be replaced by “gender-neutral and inclusive” language in all school forms, websites, letters, and other communications. We have a Florida University banning the words “Mom” and “Dad.” We have schools banning classic books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. and publishers hiring “sensitivity editors” to edit out potentially offensive viewpoints and words. And to take it to another extreme, we now have a Canadian law dictating what words you must use in referring to a person’s self-identified gender identity—or face punishment.
What We’re Learning
What this “do not offend” dictum is teaching us is that we’re so vulnerable that “authorities” of one kind or another must step in to protect us. And furthermore, we’re increasingly lured into thinking that those who use insensitive language or hold opinions different from our own are enemies, and even enemy combatants, against whom we must fight with any means at our disposal. Blogs and social media urge readers to jail, torture, rape, and assassinate people with opposing political opinions. No opinion but mine must stand…because it hurts me.
What to Do Instead
If we’re going to save the right to free speech, the fundamental right on which all freedom depends, we need to oppose regulations against it, whether they’re imposed by governments or institutions. We need to begin proclaiming that we value hearing opposing opinions, that we’re robust enough to hear—and even thoughtfully consider—opposing points of view. We need to understand that people are made stronger by confronting dissent, not weakened by it. Life is tough, and we grow more resilient by facing challenges. We’re broadened by the richness of diverse opinions. We move nearer to Truth only by viewing it from different angles.
Free conversation allows us to negotiate our differences. It’s the only means we have to prevent authoritarianism, tyranny and war. “Not to speak one’s thoughts,” Euripides said, “is slavery.”
So on this weekend, when we find ourselves thinking about what it means to be free, let us declare ourselves to be free to express ourselves and to allow others to do the same. Unless every person is free to speak his or her truth, none will be.