Merriam-Webster defines ‘free speech’ as “the right to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content and subject only to reasonable limitations (as the power of the government to avoid a clear and present danger) especially as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” Despite this definition, it has somehow been understood to mean the right to say anything you want without repercussion. While the Constitution protects your free speech from government consequences (to a degree—if you threaten a president, don’t be shocked when secret service shows up at your door), it certainly does not protect you from social ones. I cannot for the life of me understand people who spout vitriol online and are shocked by the consequences. Surely you can’t be shocked if you show up to a protest wearing a swastika armband and receive an email from your Jewish employer telling you that you’ve been fired? An individual is entitled to say whatever they want, as is their God-given right. However, that same person is in no way exempt from the consequences resulting from that action. This response occurs because, as I hope most of us are aware, words have power and especially words that come from people in positions of influence. The words and beliefs of individuals can justify the thoughts and actions of others. Words can be used to uplift marginalized groups or to validate the hate of an oppressor. If for example, the president of a country, a person who is intended to be the moral compass of a country and its inhabitants, voices his beliefs and biological misunderstanding that an entire race of people is inherently more violent and therefore likely to commit a crime, this opinion has weight. Despite the fact that this belief relies on facts and statistics that science has widely disproved, it has the power to influence others and guide legislation that affects those beyond the individual. A legislative example of such a belief is “stop and frisk,” which disproportionately affects black men due to a perception of black men being more violent than the rest of the population. This “free speech” becomes a problem when it reduces the standard of living of others. It then becomes less of a personal opinion and more of an imposition of will. You might believe that America “belongs” to white Americans, and you can voice that opinion, but when that belief extends to legislation that reduces the standard of living for non-white Americans, it becomes a problem.
What has always struck me as interesting about free speech in the context of America is that for something so closely associated with American ideals and ideology, it has so often been used to strip freedoms from other members of society. It reminds me of that one quote from Animal Farm which talks about how all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. Despite the fact that freedom of speech has historically been used to support liberal movements and breakthroughs, such as the achievement of Civil Rights, and the protection of religious freedoms, its modern iteration has seen it used as a means of protecting hate speech, to varying degrees.
Nowhere is the issue of free speech more prominent than on university campuses. Universities are and have always been a cultivation ground for new, and even controversial schools of thought. They have played key roles in most historic turning points: Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights to name a few. The conversations held on these issues may have been controversial at the time, and antithetical to the accepted attitudes, but ultimately the dissident thinkers changed the established norms to give oppressed groups increased freedoms. Because of this history, it should come as no surprise that the current left-right divide is most visible on campuses, which serve as societal microcosms. I attended a school that was pretty liberal, and so I can only give my opinion based on my personal experience. The political climate in Canada is nowhere near as hot as that of our neighbors to the South, but the deepening of political cleavages can be felt in the country, learning institutions included. I remember being filled in on rumors of professors’ right-leaning opinions, whispered and very clearly disdained. In some cases, knowledge of an instructor’s conservative identity was enough to conclude that professor’s stance on everything from tax reform to abortion. To an extent, this was only to be expected in a school that accommodated as many parts of the LGBTQIA spectrum as it could. Where words such as “oppressed,” “trigger warning,” “safe space” and “microaggression” were common. As someone who mostly identifies as liberal, I often wondered how conservative students felt on campus and in lecture halls, where liberal opinions were the norm, and the expectation of conformity to it was palpable.
Am I then arguing that campuses have become too PC and should return to the day when nothing was off limits? That safe spaces should be eschewed to maintain the integrity of debate and free speech? No, not exactly. As a black woman, I am acutely aware that in those grand old days of great debate and academic trailblazing, I would not have been allowed on campus to participate in said discussions. I feel as though historical context must be present when we talk about free speech, especially when it comes to hate speech. It’s easy to have a “sticks and stones” approach to these words, but that’s not entirely applicable. In institutions like universities that excluded women and people of color, white males ultimately had an advantage; They belonged to these spaces and felt as such. Restrictions on words that alienate people who were formerly excluded from these areas attempt to create a space where these groups feel included, exempt from judgment and hatred; A safe space. The term itself is Merriam Webster defined as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” But is it even possible to create such a space?
In my second year of university, a professor sent an email asking the students in his class their opinion on safe spaces, and whether or not he should implement them. At the time, I wrote a long schpiel about how safe spaces were essential in providing a safe and healthy learning environment. But two years on from that and now at the end of university time, I’m not sure I’d agree with my past self. Safe spaces are tricky in that they try to be accommodating of everybody. This attempt is impeded by the mere fact that people are not a monolith. In today’s world of gender and sexual identity as a spectrum rather than a binary, people are more different than ever. An attempt to avoid offensive speech may be an effort in futility. And to whom does this safety extend? Just those who have historically been marginalized and oppressed, or to everyone? Is the existence of “people of color only spaces” legitimate in an attempt to create an environment where POC feel safe, or is that just another iteration of segregated spaces, albeit implemented by the oppressed rather than the oppressor? And how do these safe spaces translate outside of the university arena, where we are forced to confront people that have beliefs in direct opposition to ours?
The safe space in a university setting is also particularly interesting. Universities are spaces of debates, where ideas are challenged, especially in my areas of study, Political Science, and History. We frequently debated the merits of Constructivism over Realism or the benefits of China’s soft-power expansion in Africa. These vital arguments allowed us to strengthen and challenge existing beliefs we may have had. This feature is essentially the point of debate, and the idea a real argument should be strong enough to out-reason any opposing argument. Is it then possible to have these discussions in a space that is free of bias, conflict, criticism and potentially threatening ideas? In an ideal world, beliefs of white-supremacy would be out-rationalized by logic and arguments that have long-since disproved the crux beliefs of these ideologies. However, it is safe to say that we do not live in an ideal world. I am too young to remember, but I often wonder if debate and legitimate exchange of thought and opinion worked better in the pre-internet era. Or have human beings always been resistant to logic? We live in a world where despite facts that prove otherwise, many Americans (Donald Trump included, probably) continue to believe that Barack Obama was not born in America. Despite facts that prove otherwise, a grown, educated adult can state that the female body has “ways” that shut everything down in the case of rape. Despite being in an age where information is more accessible than ever, misinformation continues to be a problem. And perhaps this is precisely because of the vast availability of information. You can find millions of websites advocating for vaccinating children, but if you believe that vaccinations cause autism, you can also find doctors that will confirm these beliefs.
This ability of people to ignore logic and fact-based argument in favor of their pre-established beliefs has led to a reluctance of liberal institutions to allow alt-right speakers a platform. The latter argues that if the views of the left are valid, a debate will prove the superiority of these arguments. But liberal institutions claim otherwise, that despite the perceived superiority of a liberal argument, in the end, they are subject to perception. To an alt-right or neo-nazi listener, the fact that the speaker has been given a voice at all is enough. There is fear of a slippery slope; By giving a voice to individuals who have opinions that are considered hateful, do we not just normalize these views? We might accept that someone who identifies as a white supremacist is heinous, but in 2017 it is more common to hear of someone openly identifying as such, whereas a few years ago such bold and unapologetic racism was only heard in the pages of a VICE article or the comment section of Youtube videos. It is incorrect to say that all members of the Alt-Right are white supremacists, but it is factual that some of their beliefs are mired in white supremacist ideology, and that is the problem. Is free speech merely a tool being used to normalize these hateful beliefs, with an ultimate goal of changing the way society views those who espouse these beliefs? And in our attempt to combat this, is the only option of the liberal populace to censor such speech at the risk of compromising the freedoms on which liberalism is built?
In all honesty, I don’t know. The weird thing about age and education is that the older I get, the less concrete my opinions become. The further we get into 2017, the more I long to be back in a classroom, if only to observe how the professors in my liberal university institution handle this current political climate, one that most of them certainly never predicted before November of 2016. In the present conservative backlash that has seen the rise of “far left” and “far right” groups, the debate over free speech and censorship shows no sign of stopping. As I enter further into the working world, outside the confines of university safe spaces and echo-chamber political thought, I cannot help but wonder if two years from now I will scoff at the opinions and beliefs I had as a 21-year-old recent graduate.