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Tolerating Opposing Voices Keep Spaces Safe

– As originally published on AllSides.com

What does freedom mean to you? Do you think we should be free to speak our minds, or do you think we should we be free from hearing opinions that insult our beliefs?

Are you willing to give up the right to express yourself if others find your thoughts offensive?

In a satirical short video by movie producer Ami Horowitz, students at Yale University were asked to sign a petition to repeal the First Amendment. In under an hour, Horowitz was able to collect signatures of 50 students who would gladly give up their right to free speech.

“Hurting someone’s feelings should not be protected by free speech,” Horowitz contends to the students. “You shouldn’t have to be exposed to things you don’t want to hear.”

Many concurred. Sensitivity is generally a laudable goal. But students missed the irony that, in the drive to be considerate and tolerant, they were willing to curtail the freedom of those with whom they disagree.

In other words, they’re being intolerant.

It’s easy to offer free speech to those with whom you agree. True tolerance, however, can be painful and difficult. For example, if you’re a heterosexual who has no problem with gay marriage, you’re not being tolerant by allowing a homosexual a voice: you both see eye to eye. Tolerance in this case would be acknowledging the right of a religious conservative to argue why same sex marriage should be illegal.

The problem is, allowing someone the freedom to express a controversial point is always distressing to someone. If we tried to shield everyone from every opinion that went against their sensibilities, there would be little left to say.

Acknowledging that everyone, no matter how abhorrent their opinion, has the same right to free speech as you doesn’t condone their viewpoint in any way. You may find no merit in their perspective, but the fact that their arguments may be wrong or upsetting to someone isn’t just cause for silencing them.

College campuses used to be known as a place for robust debate and the exploration of new ideas. But the tide has shifted. A drive to be highly ethical and compassionate has created a new priority on campus: protecting students from being made to feel inferior or marginalized. However, these protections are usually only extended to particular groups. But who gets to choose which groups should be afforded this protection?

For example, conservative speaker Suzanne Venker preaches the benefits of being a stay-at-home wife supported by a husband’s income. Her invitation to speak at Williams College was rescinded when feminist groups complained that her message was insulting. The invitation was eventually reinstated amid controversy. When we don’t have the chance to hear opposing viewpoints, we have no opportunity to question what we’ve been told, says Venker. “It should tell you something if you’re afraid to engage or hear an alternative view… People aren’t thinking critically.”

Safe spaces and hate speech have been hot topics in the media as well as on college campuses. Safe Space Network describes a “safe space” as a place to “fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability…and strongly encourages everyone to respect others.”

It’s fine to create a place or an organization in which like-minded people can support each other and their mutual ideas. And in general we want to encourage a civil society where people don’t callously insult one another. But there’s danger in trying to designate a whole campus or the general public as a “safe space.”

We may find that the power to silence others can also be turned on us.

  • Feeling “uncomfortable” is very different from truly feeling “unsafe.”  Conflating these terms is deceptive and confuses separate issues. We have laws against slandering and threatening others. But we shouldn’t be forbidden to publicly disagree with others, even with their most deep-seated beliefs. There’s a big difference in saying you believe a religion or ideology is flawed and declaring you think Muslims or Jews should be beaten up. Blurring these concepts can lead to undue censorship.

  • “Strongly encouraging everyone to respect others” is a two-way street. For example, some people passionately believe abortion is murder. They liken the morality of their anti-abortion stance to the anti-slavery movement: they are protecting innocent victims who can’t protect themselves. They consider discussion of the pro-choice stance as painfully marginalizing their fervent opinion. So by the safe space reasoning, any discussion that supports abortion should be silenced.

  • If everyone is entitled to be shielded from negative speech, everyone can use censorship and hate speech laws to their advantage. In New York, the police have registered as Officially Protected Victims by filing hate crime charges against a woman who wrote anti-NYPD graffiti. A group defending “White Pride and a safe place for White students” at the University of Illinois has turned the tables on Black Lives Matters, labeling the group as “terrorists” who “disrupt student daily life and activity far too much,” marginalizing white students. These groups have made the case that because they feel uncomfortable, such protests should be considered hate crimes.

  • When a society doesn’t allow everyone the right to peacefully voice their opinion, we allow an environment in which others can bully us into silence. For example, pro-Israeli as well as pro-Palestinian groups have accused each other of hate speech to prevent the other from expressing their views. “When I speak on campus in favor of Israel, I need armed guards protecting me,” says Alan Dershowitz.

The truth is, only free speech will save us from being oppressed and marginalized.

As the mock Yale petition demonstrates, there are smart young people who believe that allowing the government to monitor our speech will protect the oppressed and keep us from mistreating each other. It will not. We can’t be truly tolerant if we’re not able to tolerate hearing ideas that challenge our beliefs. When we use censorship to shield ourselves and others from uncomfortable ideas, we all run the risk of being marginalized.

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