Why do we need free speech? This fundamental question has now become the subject of great discussion and debate, especially given recent controversies regarding “big tech” media censoring major conservative voices. In other words, people are censoring opinions that they disagree with. I would hope, that in good faith, most Americans would agree that open debate is the only rational way to solve problems. After all, our liberties were only secured after “radical” colonists made their view, that the government must protect basic human freedoms, loud and clear.
Today, we unfortunately face a similar issue with censorship — one that should worry everyone, but disconcertingly doesn’t. Even as Americans that seem to be ever so divided in the era of media sensationalism and partisan politics, we cannot lose touch of our basic American, and arguably human, values of free speech and against censorship.
“Reason, and free inquiry,” Thomas Jefferson writes in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, “are the only effectual agents against error.”
Oh, if only he were alive today. I can imagine his disappointment with how those in high positions of cultural influence attempt to shut down speech that they disagree with. Jefferson, along with all revolutionary Americans at the time knew that free speech ultimately results in a net good, in that a free flow of ideas exposes people to other perspectives that might be better thought out than their own. I would even argue that this reasoning applies best to today’s situation.
Let’s face it — we live in a fairly politically divided country. The loudest, and often most irrational, voices often prevail in the realm of public consensus. We enjoy it because it confirms our biases and makes us comfortable. Unfortunately, these loud and irrational forces mostly source from the people we expect to be at the forefront of fighting against it: the media. It’s left to the individual to sort out fact from fiction, a campaign that has ultimately failed most people. In fact, estimates show that the number of those who hold consistently conservative or liberal views has doubled in the last decade.
Our current circumstances mean that we’re losing the willingness to have our minds changed or engage in any civil discourse at all. An agenda of censorship just seems to be fueling the fire, as evident whenever Twitter blocks an influential political commentator or when a higher-up at Google attempts to impose her personal beliefs to censor and deny a fair election process. Every time this happens, one side always seems to be suspiciously dead silent.
This should not be another partisan issue. Censorship helps no one. Let me repeat that: Censorship helps no one. The only reason one would censor another is if his point of view carries no actual weight, not even to himself. In reality, censorship originates from cowardice. We require a resurgence of open political discourse, offline and online, to reach net truth. If you truly believe in your convictions, debate, don’t censor.
Some would argue that free speech shouldn’t protect offensive speech. After all, why protect the divisive voices of ideological radicals? While this idea seems virtuous in principle, it immediately falls apart when you reason through the essential questions. Who gets to decide what “offensive speech” is? Anything that’s offensive? Well, that can’t work, because anyone can find anything offensive, especially in today’s “cultured” society. What I consider offensive might be completely permissible to another.
Maybe that’s too broad. As Americans, I would believe that it’s a virtuous goal for us to transcend discrimination on the matter of race and national origin. So how about banning racist speech? Again, that argument falls apart. Who gets to define something as “racist”? Is it motive, or the emotional damage it would cause? What about jokes that could, by some, be considered as racially insensitive?
The truth is that no politician can define the parameters in any meaningful or universal way. Even if that were possible, the legislation of any speech only opens the opportunity for more prudent government censorship. Legislative speech isn’t free speech, by definition and in practice. I’m not saying that racist speech is morally tolerable, because it isn’t. I’m saying that the principle behind racially insensitive speech is necessary. We may not agree with certain kinds of speech, but recognizing the higher importance of maintaining a society of open ideas is imperative.
It is of the utmost importance that we hold dear our American values, the same values that emerged with the creation of America, the same values that we fought a civil and two world wars over, the same values that so many have paid the ultimate price of their lives in the struggle to protect, and the same rights that secured the foundation of our basic liberties. As Benjamin Franklin back in 1787 put it, America is “a republic if you can keep it,” and today, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, it’s prudent that we all strive for civil and open debate to solve our nuanced issues that define our republic.