I have been observing some of the latest discussions about safe speech and free speech. I get the concerns about micro-aggressions. If you are part of an ethnic minority, for example, you may hear comments that reveal stereotypes that are offensive. The comment may not always be deliberately offensive, which reveals how much such stereotypes are part of the fabric of our society.
Yet it is also troubling that speech is often suppressed, or safe zones are declared. Many of us remembered fighting for free speech on campus, We would even say,”I might not like what you are saying, but I will defend your right to say it.” It is concerning that in universities where it once was thought that the best answer for a bad argument was a better argument, we now seem to think the best answer for an argument we don’t like is to suppress it–disinvite the speaker, get the administrator or faculty to resign, shout down the opposition.
What I want to explore is an understanding of responsible free speech. Short of slander and liable, our free speech protections have been sweeping, and on the whole, the best protection our democracy has against tyranny. We protect a lot of irresponsible speech–speech that hurts, belittles, polarizes, and stirs hatreds. Some of the efforts toward “safe speech” are intended to address these irresponsible excesses. I actually think that efforts that bar such speech are misbegotten at best and tyrannous at worst. I’d like to propose something different.
I would propose that the ethic that follows from believing in free speech is a commitment to the speech of freedom. What do I mean by that? It is that we practice a kind of golden rule in our speaking. I ask, does my speech afford the dignity, and seek the freedom and flourishing of those I am speaking about or with, particularly those with whom I disagree? Do I want for them what I want for me?
Notice that this is not a proposal that suppresses disagreement or even vigorous argument. Rather, I would suggest that it creates the necessary foundation for such argument. I always find myself more willing to engage with, and more hopeful of a meeting of the minds with those who assume the best about me and want the best for me even if they disagree with my way of thinking.
I’ve often mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. in these columns. Though hardly perfect, I believe he practiced the speech of freedom. He contended for justice for his people, but said this could not be done with hatred in one’s heart. The aim was not an isolated safe space, but a “beloved community” that had room for the transgressors, as well as the aggrieved.
I think this kind of speech reveals the deep wellsprings of who we are. I would suggest that the test of our hearts is do we love the neighbor with whom we most deeply disagree? This kind of speech calls out what is noblest in us, the “better angels of our nature.”
I do not think we can wait until others practice the speech of freedom to begin to practice this in our lives. And I wonder, in our deeply divided society, if we can afford to wait? Do we want to settle for safe speech, or speech that is free at the expense of others, when we can forge a bond across our deepest differences in pursuing the speech of freedom?