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Silencing Those One Disagrees with Does More Harm Than Good

by Judah Berger

People throughout history have died for the right to the vote. Despite the anger many feel after this election, few would argue to suppress the right to vote for certain Americans.

People have also died protecting their right to free speech. In response to post-election frustrations and confusion, there are calls for cracking down on “hate speech” on campuses in an effort to secure a safe space, free from views that are commonly classified as flat-out racist, bigoted, xenophobic, sexist… the list goes on. Even Twitter has suspended some accounts in the name of cracking down on “hate speech.”

Take a moment to reconsider this urge.

An enforcer of penalties against hate speech might say, “but it is obvious that their views are plainly intolerant, so why should we, as progressives, tolerate such speech on a college campus? Misogyny and racism should not be allowed a podium in our university environment!”

This is an appeal to reason that everyone—especially the progressive and tolerant college student—has a duty to defend free speech. Hate speech directed toward a specific person in a vehement way, such as calling a black student the N-word, is not what I am talking about; I am discussing political opinions that some (or many) view to be at best politically incorrect and at worse racist, sexist, and intolerant. I shall now refer to the famous philosopher John Stuart Mill on why free speech is so important. The rest of this article is inspired by Mill’s masterpiece, On Liberty.

Think right now of any opinion you hold. We can all agree that there are three possibilities regarding your selected opinion: it is right, it is wrong, or it is a mixture of right and wrong. Those are the only three possibilities.

Let us start with the first possibility: your opinion is correct and true. Congratulations, you have the honor of holding the right opinion! “If I’m really right there’s no need to hear the other side,” you might say. Not so fast; this is a bad idea for at least two reasons.

If you don’t need to hear another side, then you assume that you are infallible. We all “know” that we can technically be wrong, but rarely take that into account when holding our opinions. However, we know that as humans, we are fallible. Therefore, you should always hear the other side, as there is no guarantee—no matter how seemingly obvious—that your opinion is correct.

Secondly, it is important to understand why you hold an opinion and the arguments behind it; it is not enough to simply “know.” If you simply “know” your opinions without going in depth into the reasons behind it, then it is impossible to ever figure out which opinions are correct and which are mistaken. When you allow the other side the chance to voice their opinion, you are given the opportunity to debate your correct idea and strengthen your own reasons for having that opinion. This is, of course, assuming that you are 100% right.

…Which is unlikely.

That brings us to our next possibility: your opinion is wrong. This shouldn’t take much convincing to figure out why free speech is a plus. You as a responsible citizen should want to reach the truth behind each issue. How do you plan to do that if you stifle the other side, the correct side? An echo chamber of your wrong opinion only makes things worse; never hearing the truth will make it near impossible to ever reach it.

Finally, the last possibility (and most likely of the three): your opinion has some right portions and some wrong portions, as does the opposing opinion. Free speech is important here more than ever because both sides want to get to the truth, and can only do so through the exchange of opinions and ideas. When both sides go into discussion open minded, giving the other a chance to express themselves, then both opinions together move closer toward the correct opinion. Without free speech, this is impossible.

Again, appealing as it is to delegitimize the half of the country you view as backward, stupid, and foolish, you should refrain. Striving toward the truth is what both sides want on every issue, and it is simply a matter of how to go about it that differentiates the two parties. To get to the truth, there must be an open and even dialogue that not only showcases one side’s strongest points, but also understands and makes room for the other’s. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, pro-life and pro-choice… these are all simply labels. Oft forgot amidst the heated rhetoric and vicious debates, the most important label can be cast aside. The label under which we all endeavor to make this country a better place, the label under which we start each morning, the label under which we say with pride:

“I’m an American.”

And so are you, all the Hillary and Trump supporters, all the Democrats, all the Republicans, and everyone in between. And Americans agree more than you might think.

Some points of agreement include:

  • The government we live in needs a lot of fixing.
  • The system has not given us the ideal choices we want.
  • Our nation is in danger of descending into polarization and hate.
  • Our veterans need our support.
  • Businesses should be able to thrive.
  • America is a great country but has not fulfilled its potential.
  • We all have an interest in seeing America flourish for all.

If it is true that we agree on the above points, there’s only one thing left to do: let’s move forward.

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