Recently, the American media cycle has been filled with stories and opinions on the issue of free speech on college campuses. From racist chants, to debates over the idea of “trigger warnings”, and attempts to stop or protect people from opposing opinions with safe places, the issue of free speech and, especially, what should and should not be tolerated is a conversation that we as a country need to have.
The University of California-Irvine went so far as to attempt to ban the flying of the American flag over their student government offices to create an inclusive space. What was their reasoning? They believed the flag was a symbol of imperialism, colonialism, and could be conceived as hate speech.
The irony about these attempts to quiet or shut-out offensive, opposing, or minority views on campus is that they are doing exactly what they are claiming to be fighting against: being intolerant.
Tolerance has a strict meaning that is often forgotten. It is the act of disagreeing with a person or group, but refusing to interfere because of a principle. You are not tolerating listening to Taylor Swift if you love her music. You are enjoying it. Likewise, you are not being tolerant watching a horrible or upsetting movie if you have no ability to shut it off or leave. You are just enduring it. For toleration you must both disagree and have a reason for not interfering.
So why should we tolerate something that we disagree with?
Because we as a nation, through the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedents, have decided that the margin of error should fall on the side of protecting people’s right to say things that may be offensive as opposed to potentially preventing political or social conversations/change through restrictive speech codes.
Toleration is not acceptance and it does not mean that you cannot speak up with your own opinion to try and sway others to think differently or change beliefs. It is, however, not preventing people from saying things or using symbols that you disagree with or outright hate.
This is really important because once you start preventing one opinion or another, everyone will come out with an opinion they want banned. Once some “triggering” image or expression is banned, everyone will have a topic they think is too horrible to talk about.
The most recent campus controversy comes from my alma mater, The University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There, the men’s rugby team became wrapped up in a scandal when a few of their team members were at an off-campus house party, labeled by some to be a rugby party, and began singing an amalgamation of traditional rugby drinking songs. This one in particular was an atrocious song about raping a dead prostitute and catching an STD.
So why would anyone defend the singing of this song?
It is not the songs substance that a defender of free speech is speaking about. It is however, the ability to say offensive things. If I believe my government has killed innocent victims in a war, I should have the right to call the commander-in-chief a murderer. To his family members and friends, that could be offensive. To someone who was in the military and a part of that military operation, that could be emotionally harmful to hear. It is especially true that the article could be “triggering” for someone who had a family member or close friend murdered.
None of these arguments, however, are strong enough to lay claim to a worthy ban on speech. In the first, we want to be able to call out leaders for decisions. Free-speech is especially important in this case as our government acts as an extension of our will as citizens whether we like to think of it like that or not. Therefore, we have to have the right to be vocal in our opposition to those government actions. If not, Vietnam may have lasted longer, torture may still be happening in Guantanamo Bay, and high-casualty drone attacks in the Middle East or elsewhere may go unchecked under our name as American citizens.
In situations where emotional distress is used as the argument against offensive speech, it is just as important to encourage debate and respect for emotions rather than outright bans. If not, our ability to speak freely will be decided by those who have the most extreme emotional sensors.
Maybe I, as a Jewish man of German decent, don’t want to hear about the experience of Jews during World War II because it is too emotionally difficult. Should my classmates have been denied the ability to learn about a significant war because of my personal feelings? If a student in college has had a history of domestic abuse or a suicidal experience, should he or she be able to deny the rest of the class the ability to read The Great Gatsby, a literary classic, because of that one individual’s inability to deal with the content?
The answer to both of these examples should be no.
I am not saying that people should not think about their audience and respect people’s experiences when speaking. I am not saying that a university or school cannot or should not make accommodations to students with hardships. I am saying however, that we should not let the most sensitive define what the rest of us are allowed to discuss, read, or advocate.