In Fostering Free Speech, Communication Is Key

The campus free speech debate is an important one, but it has unfortunately been hijacked by two opposing sides that hold two polarizing positions. On one side, there are the people who firmly believe speech can cause harm, and anything perceived to be hate speech must be shut down by any means necessary, including sometimes by violence. On the other side, there are people who firmly believe there is a free-speech crisis on campus led by post-modern neo-Marxists with the goal of shutting down only the speech they deem offensive.

Yet it’s wrong to see the free-speech debate as only containing two arguments. There is an alternative view. That view posits that there simply isn’t enough communication between those who take issue with offensive speech and prefer to shut it down, and those who believe “social justice warriors” are bringing about the destruction of free speech. Instead of actually speaking to one another, they shout, they break things, and they call each other names. They even accuse each other of contributing to the destruction of modern civilization, among other overly-dramatic claims.

Both sides need to take a deep breath. Civilization itself has survived far worse crises, and the good news is there’s a simple solution that has not been tried enough to be deemed a failure. That solution is respectful, calm communication between the two sides, done by people who do not seek to “checkmate and destroy” their opposition, but rather to convince the other of their position, or understand the opposing viewpoint enough to be able to live with it while still disagreeing.

I work at an educational non-profit that delivers programming primarily to university students, aimed at allowing them to discover the ideas of liberty. One of the ways we do this is to arrange talks on campus by speakers who are not there to further their careers through controversy, but rather to posit a theory and allow students to debate it. These are thoughtful, qualified speakers who really care about giving students an alternative way of thinking about topics like free speech, personal liberty, and free markets, among many other topics.

A few months ago, the Executive Director of my organization gave a talk on free speech at a university in Ottawa. It was attended by a primarily left-leaning crowd, people that some might call “social justice warriors”. The talk was about fostering communication as a means to understanding, and about how to end the culture war. It also provided students with ways in which they could deal with speech they might feel is offensive, such as not attending a talk, or organizing an alternative talk, or asking hard questions after they’ve allowed the speaker to finish their speech. Based on the questions they were asking during the talk, it became obvious that many of the students were unconvinced. They asked the speaker to stay and talk with them after the talk, and what followed was over an hour of often emotional, and sometimes angry, questions from the students. Some asked whether he was aware that some words that he might have used in his talk could be interpreted as hurtful. Others wanted to make sure the speaker fully understood the historical implication of some speech, and why some students feel the need to stop the speech from occurring in the first place.

Here’s where things got weird. The speaker didn’t talk down to them. He didn’t accuse them of furthering a post-modernist decline of society. He acknowledged their sentiments, asked them for clarification on points that he was unfamiliar with, and proceeded to answer their questions and defend his ideas in a clear and respectful manner. Conversations were had that allowed each speaker to finish speaking, where points were clarified, and where opposing viewpoints were challenged after better understanding the opponent’s views.

No fire alarms were pulled, no one elbowed anyone in the face, and no one was accused of any post-modernist Marxist plots. Seventy-five minutes later, the speaker and the students were thanking each other for the respectful conversation, and some of the most passionate critics were even thanking him for taking the time to speak with them. Neither had been fully convinced by the other, but everyone left feeling like the other side wasn’t accusing them of ending civilization as we know it, but that they simply had a difference in opinion that they now both understood better.

This is not the only such incident that I have been a witness to. I’ve seen it countless times as I travel around the country putting these types of events on at campuses that are often deemed “conservative” or “leftist” strongholds. Confronted with a reasonable, calm, and educated speaker, students debate them, sometimes passionately, but everyone leaves feeling like they gained from the conversation. Again, no fire alarms are ever pulled, even with the most controversial of topics.

Respectful communication is still happening on university campuses in Canada. I see it all the time. Students, as they have for every generation that has preceded this one, have very charged and sometimes radical opinions. And, that’s okay. That’s what makes our society diverse and keeps it moving forward, an honest exchange of sometimes radical ideas. It’s how we deal with it that matters. When those who purport to defend free speech do so in an accusatory and sometimes derogatory way, there can be no expectation that anyone not already convinced will come around. As for the “SJWs” that constantly choose to pull fire alarms and shout people down no matter who is speaking, those are trouble makers that don’t deserve to be part of the university community and are doing the opposite of defending freedom. But they’re the ones that make the news. Students like the ones I described above never make any headlines, but they are much more common than you think.

So, how does one help champion free speech given what I’ve laid out above? You must communicate, and encourage communication. If you don’t like a speaker and what they are saying, you invite another speaker to speak afterwards. If you are vehemently opposed to what someone is saying, you hear them out and challenge them without necessarily having to change the other person’s mind. Most importantly, we must stop going in to these situations convinced that there’s an enemy. This only leads to both sides believing that the “other” is out to get them, and their strategies turn into finding ways to win points in the public arena, rather than furthering public learning.

And finally, a plea to anyone who is in a position to invite a speaker to campus: Invite someone who is thoughtful and who isn’t stoking controversy just for controversy’s sake. Those types of people are only looking to fill their coffers, and are mostly just preaching to their choir of followers. There are fantastic alternatives out there, people who speak on very controversial topics but do so with the goal of educating people on their opinions rather than to have a fire alarm pulled or make the news. That’s how you get students to listen to new ideas they may not be exposed to in the classroom. You should be able to safely invite speakers who are controversial for controversy’s sake to campus, and others should not try to stop you. But you can’t complain afterward that you don’t seem to be able to get through to the “kids these days”.

If those who truly believe in freedom of expression cannot find anyone that doesn’t offend others just for the sake of offense to speak on campus, and are completely convinced that students are too far gone and cannot be reached, then perhaps they should take a look at their own practices and what their goals actually are: to educate, or to inflame? While each person has the right to safely invite whomever they want to campus, if your goal is to educate, then there are plenty of ways to successfully reach students on campus through communications and the creation of opportunities to learn from one another.