Heinen: Keeping speech free

Speaking in all its forms is a fundamental right

Freedom of Speech: Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Words, syntax, expression, communication, ideas; speaking in all of its forms (and we are talking about more than vocal speaking) is fundamental to human existence. It is also a cherished and protected right. I don’t think it’s possible to separate political speech from other forms, such as poetry, dance, T-shirts and tattoos, even–for now–campaign contributions.

Speech is speech, and the extent to which it is unhindered and unrestricted is the extent to which we are truly free. So why do so many elected officials go to such lengths to hinder and restrict it? And why do so many citizens these days react to speech with which they disagree, not by the hallowed response of more speech, but by striving to prevent the purveyors of such speech from speaking? This is dangerous stuff, friends; dangerous and dull and dreary and stupefying.

It’s easy to dismiss the current debate over mandated diversity of speakers on university campuses and restrictions on protests against said speakers as so much meddling by politicians unfamiliar with the true meaning of sifting and winnowing. Most such efforts are clumsy and short-sighted and likely to have the opposite effect of what was intended. The current thinking is, by forcing oppressively liberal universities to offer more diversity in the form of conservative speakers, and to compel those universities to punish students who interfere with the speakers’ ability to speak, campuses will be more welcoming environments for expression of diverse (conservative) ideas. That kind of thinking seems to betray a lack of trust not just in the institution but in the critical thinking capabilities of some of our smarter fellow citizens, students. And that’s selling both a little short.

But let’s just stipulate that both political liberals and conservatives are so desperate to promote their respective ideologies that they are willing to stifle speech in general to do so.

Beyond cherry-picking voters and appeasing big campaign donors, the bigger question remains: Exactly what are we so afraid of? No political philosophy or party has any shortage of wacky ideas. So where’s the fun in refusing to even listen to them being expressed and, if necessary, summarily dismissing them? Have our attention spans, to say nothing of our patience, really diminished to where we’re unable to consider viewpoints different from ours, to actually enjoy such consideration and seek it out? That’s why we go to the movies, listen to music, go to church, linger in the Asian foods aisle at Woodman’s, look perhaps a second longer than we should at a billboard as we’re driving on the Beltline. There are many chance encounters each day where we say to ourselves, “Well, that’s different,” and we enjoy what that feels like. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but really, it’s the human desire for variety, for driving one day and biking the next, for Kendrick Lamar and Japandroids, ketchup and mustard (though don’t attribute that one to me, OK?). Variety of human expression is among the most stimulating wonderful and rich experiences in all of life.

Yes, there should be conservative voices on campus. There should be atheist voices on campus. There should be (and probably already are) alien voices from another planet on campus. But requiring or regulating them is not the way to ensure they are heard. The way to do that is to acknowledge that they are interesting, valuable, perhaps a little mysterious. Or maybe, a little dangerous. Dangerous as in challenging our assumptions, making us a little uncomfortable, forcing us to think. You can’t legislate that. You get out of the way and let speech happen.

Now we’re talking.