Why We Must Defend Free Expression

This year, President Salovey’s Freshman Address was on free expression. His speech focused on a report on that topic written by a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster. Notable among the members of the committee was Professor Woodward, Sterling Professor of History and scholar of the American South. Salovey remarked “…it is important on occasions like this one to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.” I wholeheartedly agree. Nonetheless, while it is true that free expression is on the defensive today, I think the more interesting phenomenon is the increasing social stigma attached to expressing views that are unpopular, different, or simply as of yet not well articulated and explained.

This stigma is bad, and the reason for that is that a pluralism of ideas is good. Dogmatized, even close to homogenous thinking, is not conducive to learning and is certainly not conducive to progress. Yes, a conservative is implying that progress can be beneficial. Pluralism is positive in politics, in academia, and even in friendships. Many modern movements in politics, especially coalition building, are harmful to the idea of pluralism and are partially responsible for the right’s less than optimistic future at this moment in time. We shouldn’t just have the right, the left, conservatives,and progressives. We need candidates who are willing to be controversial and to own their own beliefs. We need platforms that don’t just conform to what will win votes or provide candidates with the cowardly comfort of being moderate enough to be free from protests or the opposition’s rage and disgust. My advice to aspiring politicians would be to say what you truly believe. Don’t be scared into expressing something that others say, especially if you don’t believe in it. There may be nothing worse than championing common beliefs that one doesn’t truly hold solely for the purpose of garnering popular support.

That being said, as Salovey warned the Yale Class of 2018, “The right to free expression does not relieve us of the obligation to think before we speak.” Weaver hit the nail on the head with his title’s concise restatement of this idea: Ideas Have Consequences. Nobody should engage in empty, glib speaking. When one speaks, apart from casual conversation, he should always speak for a purpose-to express a certain cogent or meaningful idea, to alert people to a relatively unexpressed or not recognized view, or even to stimulate debate. I am a strong proponent of expressing a view merely to get people to think.

Some believe there exists a conflict between promotion of free expression and maintenance of community, friendship, and fraternity. This conflict was another well-expressed theme in Salovey’s address. Can we be friends with those we strongly disagree with? Certainly we can if we don’t discuss anything polemical like politics or the economy. Presumably friends have other things in common, things such as interests or hobbies that can bring disagreeing individuals together as companions. Even President Clinton and the Bush family are good friends. It would be hard to believe that former presidents who spend a lot of time together never discuss politics, a subject about which they certainly disagree. How can such people be friends? How can we overcome our different views, especially if we believe some of these views to be morally repulsive?

I think that Salovey answers this question quite nicely with “We should not offend merely to offend.” There is a place and purpose for dissenting beliefs, but it surely isn’t just to make those one disagrees with feel marginalized or dare I say stupid. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty argues for the benefits of open discourse, and hearing various opinions, especially opposing viewpoints. I agree with Mill on these points and that listening to opposing viewpoints always has a benefit, for even if you do not in any way agree with the opposite view or even if you believe the opposite view to be clearly false, listening to it and considering it will help you examine your own view and perhaps reformulate it to better respond to the opposing position.  One must argue and one must present and hear opposing views. Even to one’s friends, criticism is not inherently bad. Rather, within critiques may lay the key to unleashing the contradiction or false logic responsible for one’s opposition to it. Presenting another way to look at something makes us more open-minded. Nobody likes the close-minded, dogmatist who staunchly affirms he is right in every instance. We are not infallible and as fallible beings we must always entertain the idea that we can be wrong. Opposition can be your friend.

I would like to conclude by dispelling one final point. Some people fear that if we entertain so many views, we will never know what is really right or true. Such people are missing the point. When we’re talking about opinions and views, there is no right answer. We’re not looking for a factual conclusion or a definitive response. The important thing is that we don’t prevent those with views that others would be least likely to qualify as true or correct from expressing what they believe. Free expression must be defended by everyone regardless of gender, political affiliation, race, age, occupation, religion, or social class. Isn’t it nice when we find those universally defendable principles? Well, this convenience comes with a responsibility. Because free expression is vulnerable to any, it must be defended by all.