The Speech of Freedom: Establishing Safety


Safe spaces have been pitted against freedom of speech on university campuses. Safe spaces are literally places where students from a racial minority, or LGBTQ students or other communities of interest can go where they won’t face hostile speech from outsiders exercising their “free” speech rights.

It seems to me that while safe spaces may be good temporary refuges, they don’t get us to the place where we can have the important conversations across our differences that allow us to reach a modus vivendi with each other.

This week, a number in the organization I work with went through Crucial Conversations© training. One of the insights shared is that people rarely get defensive about the content of what we say. Instead, they become defensive because of why they think they are saying it. The issue is safety, and the training says people experience safety, when their is mutual respect and a mutual, shared purpose.

What this suggests to me is that safety is not ultimately spatial but relational. The speech of freedom is not just about the content of what we say but our commitment to communicate in our words and demeanor genuine respect even for the others with whom we speak. With this is commitment to mutual purpose. What could be the mutual purpose between to differing people? If nothing else in our democracy, it would seem that wanting others to enjoy all the rights and opportunities of citizenship–a precious gift.

What was even more striking was the idea that we can have really hard conversations when we are committed to the safety of each other.Safety and freedom need not be opposed to each other or mutually exclusive. Rather safety both creates the environment where we might speak freely, and where we might listen, even to difficult things, because we know the other respects us and we are in this together.

“Safety first” may well be the motto of the speech of freedom. To cherish our freedom cannot just be to protect our own “first freedoms” but to ensure that others enjoy the safety we want. Seems like an American thing to do.


Outrage and the Speech of Freedom


By David Shankbone – David Shankbone CC BY – SA 3.0,

“Why are we so angry?”

That’s a question I’ve been musing on of late.

My Facebook friends are a curious phenomena of my life. I find some expressing outrage against anything that might be associated with the political left. And then there are others equally outraged with anything associated with the political right. It makes me kind of glad that they only meet on my newsfeed! It also makes me wonder what it says about me that I have friends at both these extremes.

Some suggest that outrage with the political establishment explains the attraction of people to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Whether or not these are the best candidates for president, it concerns me that outrage might outweigh more measured judgments of who should serve in this important office.

I come back to my question of “why are we so angry?”

Outrage is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I wonder what feeds the anger that shows up in road rage, gun violence, and the vitriolic discourse that increasingly seems to be the social and popular media norm.

I do wonder at time about the capacity of our media to ratchet up our anger as one angry voice augments another, with media personalities egging this on because it means more views to a blog, a talk show, or “news” program. One study suggests that “anger is the internet’s most powerful emotion.”

Could this be one reason why we are so angry?

While expressions of outrage may well be protected free speech, I do wonder whether any of this promotes what I call the speech of freedom–the speech whose aim is to promote the common good of both speaker and those with whom they disagree. It seems to me that all outrage does is solidify my bond with those who share my anger while alienating me further from any who see things differently.

Maybe that’s what some of us want. But I kind of wonder how healthy a community is that is formed around anger. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to keep fostering the antagonisms that our media seem bent on ratcheting up. Do we really want a world that is divided into winners and losers, a zero sum game? There are many parts of the world that operate like that. By and large, they are brutal, vengeful places where victory and tragedy are never far apart.

Can anger ever be useful? The apostle Paul once wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” I’ve come to realize that anger is a sign, and to ask what that is a sign of, and to act quickly to address the source of my anger. Sometimes, it is simply that a selfish desire has been frustrated, and it may be useful to hold up the mirror and see what this is showing me about myself.

Sometimes, we are angry because of some injustice or grievance that breaks a relationship. I can stew and build resentment, or I can go, before the sun sets, and say, “we need to talk, because this endangers our relationship.” It’s not always possible to work out differences in a day–the issue is not letting them fester. There is an incredible freedom that comes when anger turns to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What about social media and other things that ratchet up anger? I wonder if it is really worthwhile giving attention to these things. What if we took the time we spent posting and reading angry rants to writing a letter to our political representatives on something we care about? What about spending the time volunteering in something we care about? What about having a conversation with a living person with a different point of view–face to face! And for people of faith, what about taking the time we would spend reading and writing things against a person to pray for them. Praying for those in public leadership is commanded in the Bible–attacking them in social media is not!

All these may be ways to turn anger into the speech of freedom.

I began this post with the question of “why are we so angry?” There is a slight twist to that question in the story of Jonah, when Jonah is pouting because God spared the powerful city of Nineveh. God asks Jonah, “do you do well to be angry?”

Do do well to be angry? Do you?




St Francis in Meditation, Francisco de Zurbaran

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love; –From the “Prayer of St. Francis”

As I’ve continued to think about this idea of “the speech of freedom“, I am convinced that the pursuit of understanding is foundational to this practice. Often we think of free speech as being able to simply express openly and without restraint my ideas, convictions, grievances, preferences, whatever. But I wonder how free are we if no one is listening, no one is understanding what the other says? If that is the case, I am confined to the bubble of my own monologue.

In the prayer attributed to St. Francis, he prays “that I may not so much seek…To be understood as to understand.” As odd as it seems, we may most truly be understood when we have given ourselves to deeply understand the other. It think this works for two reasons.

One, it is often, but not always the case, that when we give another person the gift of really listening to understand them, they will want to return the favor. To have another person enter deeply into my life, to work and work to really understand me, and to convey in words that express back the content and tone of what I’ve said is a rare and beautiful thing, a form of deeply knowing a person.

This deep knowing of understanding the other also helps me to speak to be understood when the time comes for that. Then I am not just expressing what I want say but also trying to connect the things I care about with what the other cares about. I better understand the things they fear, the things they hope for and can be careful not to needlessly arouse their fears nor quench their hopes.

Understanding is not the same as agreeing. In fact, sometimes understanding helps us better understand the nature of our disagreement. Often when we do not listen to understand, we discuss what we think are the points where the other disagrees rather than with what is the actual substance of our disagreement. Sometimes we actually agree on things we thought we disagreed upon! When we’ve worked to understand one another, we are freed to work together from our places of common ground to the places where we disagree.

Tim Muelhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University proposes in his book I Beg To Differ several crucial elements of listening to understand:

  • Desire to understand. Do we really desire to engage and understand the other person, allowing time and space to share his or her perspective?
  • Questions. If a phrase, term, or idea is not clear, are we asking for clarification? When listening, how often do we achieve listening fidelity [understanding what the person means to convey]?
  • Summary statements. After asking for clarification, are we offering summary statements that paraphrase the words of the speaker, making sure to match content and tone?
  • Perspective taking. Are we putting ourselves into the perspective of another person to see how we would react if we held the views of the speaker?
  • Mindfulness. Are we fully present when listening to others? What internal or external distractions make us lose focus?
  • Poetic moments. Are we keeping our ears open for a phrase that surfaces a person’s passion or deep convictions? (p. 101)

It just may be that the most important element of “the speech of freedom” isn’t really speech at all but rather the effort to really listen to understand that conveys I want for the other what I want for myself: to be understood. It is then that monologue can become true dialogue and we are freed from the misunderstandings that prevent us from seeking the flourishing of even those we most deeply differ with.

“Tell Me More”

Tell me moreI recently wrote a post on “the speech of freedom“, which I proposed is the kind of speech that affords the dignity, and seeks the freedom and flourishing of those I am speaking about or with, particularly those with whom I disagree.

Really, when it comes down to it, this is just responsible free speech. Responsible free speech never undermines the dignity and freedom of others, even those we disagree with, to obtain our object. It recognizes that there really is no “us” and “them”, whether we are talking about our town, our nation, or our world. We are in this thing called life together.

I heard a talk at a conference recently that proposed a simple statement that we can utter when confronted with the different that we are tempted to call “them”. It was a very basic example to me of practicing “the speech of freedom.” It was the statement, “tell me more.”

“Tell me more”:

  • is an invitation to a conversation, not an argument.
  • is an indication that I want to understand rather than pigeonhole.
  • requires that I shut up and listen.
  • is a statement acknowledging the dignity of the other, that their “more” is worth hearing.

Most often when I hear something with which I take issue, or meet someone who I sense is very different I want to:

  • immediately jump into an argument about why they are wrong.
  • fit them into a category and be done with them.
  • tell them more about why I am right.
  • persuade myself of at least the moral inferiority of the other, that somehow I am more virtuous, or more “something.”

All these things fail the test of the speech of freedom, because to be on the receiving end of such speech neither engenders good will nor extends greater dignity and freedom to the other. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way by another.

“Tell me more” is different. In extending the freedom to another to make themselves understood, I open up rather than shut down speech. It also allows each of us to open our minds to the other and to be curious rather than shutting our minds to the new and different. “Tell me more” gives me the freedom for a whole range of other options than simply being “offended” by difference–I can be intrigued, open, thoughtful, even delighted in the end. “Tell me more” allows me to either be persuaded, or unpersuaded by a different idea. One thing it doesn’t allow me is to be ignorant of why someone else might think that way.

I hope to write more on “the speech of freedom” this year. I believe this is something we desperately need to sustain and enhance a democratic and civil society. I also want to work on using these three words more consistently when I encounter difference:

“Tell me more.”

Bob on Books in 2016

20151225_163728I just looked back at a post from a year ago where I talked about some of the things I hoped to do on the blog in 2015.  Here are some of the successes, and some of those lapses we won’t talk too much about:


  • I reviewed more recently published books, those with a 2015 copyright.
  • I started including a summary at the top of my reviews to help with deciding whether you were interested enough in a book to read my whole review. I also include publishing information and a link to the publisher’s website for the book if I can locate this.
  • I did a couple author interviews, a two part interview with a publisher, and many of the bookstore reviews included interviews with an owner or bookseller.
  • I certainly did posts on the reading life. Some of my favorites were on books I read too soon and books I wish I had read sooner.
  • I did a variety of bookstore reviews, enough to give this its own category on the blog menu.
  • I also converted the blog to a “responsive” theme, making it easier to read in general and especially on tablets and smartphones.
  • I continued the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series– far longer than I expected.


  • I didn’t do graphic novels. Sorry Ben. I think I’m going to leave reviewing these to you!
  • I didn’t really feature famous readers other than Dr. Eliot’s “five foot shelf.”

Some thoughts about 2016:

Reviews: I will continue to look for ways to tweak these and would love to get your feedback on what would make these more user friendly for you. I would also like to explore doing more author interviews in conjunction with book reviews. I consider reading an interactive relationship of the ideas and imaginations of reader and author via the book. I hope I can personalize the author end more.

Literacy: It has always been a passion of mine to foster literacy, which is not just the ability to read and write, but a growing love and thoughtfulness in engaging in these activities through reading quality work, thinking critically about what we’ve read, and writing with cogency and grace. I hope to interact with teachers of reading, librarians, booksellers, and writers around this theme. Because I review and write on theological subjects, I’m also interested in the role churches and other religious institutions play in fostering literacy. I’ve been most intrigued by the work of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, and their Englewood Review of Books in this regard.

Bookstore Reviews: I hope to continue to feature great bookstores, both for new and used books, especially those independently owned. I have to do this as my travels give me opportunity. If you know of a great store in another part of the country than the Midwest and would be interested in doing a “guest review”, let me know!

On Life: These posts, and those on Youngstown tend to be the most popular, but in some ways the most unpredictable. What I would say, is that in these and all posts, I want to exemplify and encourage what I called recently “the speech of freedom.” I want to work out more of what that means this year. I’m not sure of what that will mean but I do want to foster a different kind of speech, a different ethic of speech from the polarizing speech in the worlds of politics, punditry, and other forms of popular discourse. I hope we can work together on that!

Thanks to all of you who follow the blog and especially those who engage the things I write. I would like to hear what you think about my ideas for the blog, and your ideas of what you’d enjoy seeing.

The Speech of Freedom

voltaireI 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?