Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Need for Complete Commitment to Freedom of Speech

Politics can learn much from freedom of speech in science. In recent years, segments of the American left have strived to silence the speech of those who question aspects of their agendas. I am a political centrist. I like to have my own ideas questioned, and I don’t think that any idea from anyone should be immune to criticism. I think that dealing with criticism is the best way to refine our ideas. Every claim important enough to consider as part of public policy should be justified or discarded. Recent years have taken political correctness to extreme. Under the guise of protection for the downtrodden, both written and unwritten laws have grown out of social norms, and activists have worked to silence expression of opposition to these norms. Although many such norms may be well founded, no idea can be justified simply by silencing opposing views. Activists raise cries of racism, misogyny, or homophobia to silence people, even when such claims might be completely irrelevant. I’m not denying that such claims can reflect reality, just that they become inappropriate when intended only to silence criticism. 

True justification of ideas is made by logical arguments, evidence, and reasoned debate. As I see it, the best way to protect the rights of those who might be oppressed is not to suppress the speech of others, but instead to counter such speech with supportive speech. In recent years, even university culture has tried to silence expression of unpopular or apparently offensive opinions. Student groups and even faculty occasionally work to silence people who might express perspectives with which they are uncomfortable. Sometimes the conflict is trivial. Back while I was a graduate student at Penn State, I recall broad campus discussion on the invitation of Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to speak at graduation. Mr. Rogers was an accomplished educator of children, with what I saw as remarkable talent. At the time, his was the longest running show in the history of public television. Yet, hundreds of students took offense to his invitation and protested to university administration. They were offended because they thought that the university was treating them like children by inviting Mr. Rogers. They were so shortsighted that they could not see Mr. Rogers’ life’s work as relevant to them. I defend the students’ rights to express their own points of view, but I condemn their attempts to silence people by taking offense where none was merited. 

Universities must be inclusive and welcoming to all types of people. Yet, a healthy university-learning environment must include the possibility that any idea be considered critically, including those on questions on religion, race, and politics. Full and unadulterated freedom of speech is not a threat to a healthy society: It is indispensable!