On Friday evening, I attended the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture where I had the pleasure of hearing Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the subject of her most recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship. Strossen is a dynamic speaker and as she wove her legal arguments into a general semantics context, I was struck by the tremendous responsibility educators have for the cultivation of rational discourse.
Strossen’s arguments were clear and persuasive. Having looked at the impact of legislation designed to limit hate speech (e.g., EU, Canada, New Zealand), she observes that these limits have done nothing to stop hateful actions, which should be the goal. The most recent assassination attempt at the Halle synagogue in Germany tells the tale. Germany has some of the strongest restrictions on hate speech. It is also seeing a rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and nationalistic attitudes, despite these restrictions.
Restrictions on (hate) speech are ineffective at best, and may be inadvertently supporting hateful acts at worst. How? By sending those who spout hateful views underground. Banning of hate groups from the Internet does not stop the hate group, it just moves them to a new site, frequently hidden from view. Recent attempts to do just that after the Charlottesville incident were problematic at best. Strossen suggested that the best way to address hate is to surface it so that there is a chance for dialogue, understanding, or, at the very least, the ability to identify those who are spouting hateful views.
Members of the Institute of General Semantics present that evening largely accepted the proposition that limits on speech are problematic. There were feelings of discomfort as we wrestled with the power of the language of bigotry. As students of language, we know that our words do not just reflect our feelings, but also construct our worlds. The very use of biased language can re-enforce racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes. It can also legitimize those attitudes, just in the speaking. Yet, banning that speech will not stop it: it will only hide it. Hearing of these attitudes offers us all the opportunity to ask why they exist and how they might be changed.
There was also some consternation about people in power using hate speech. This is particularly relevant when we consider our hyper-connected social media world. Facebook recently announced that it was not in the censorship business and they would not stop political ads that have false statements in them. While this may seem absurd, and perhaps plays into the hands of unscrupulous politicians, Strossen suggested that seeing those ads allows us to better judge the candidate. Leaving them out in the open allows us to evaluate biases, faulty assumptions, and poorly supported arguments, and be better informed about who or what we are actually voting for/against. She may have a point.
I embrace Strossen’s perspective but recognize some of the challenges that living with freedom of speech presents. One of the critical components to having freedom of speech be a social good is our ability to decode and validate information. The demand for this evaluative capacity has never been stronger than right now. We have undermined the many structures that helped us sort information in the past (editors, community leaders, investigative reporting, even just plain old time) while at the same time providing easy access to communication platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia and, well the Internet) with algorithms to lead the way. This means all of our education structures K-12 through Ph.D. must continuously re-enforce the tools necessary for evaluating information.
Given the urgency of the situation, and it is urgent if we want an informed citizenry to guide policy of any kind, those of us in higher education might want to re-group and more specifically address these analytical skills. Strossen referenced the demands on her law students, noting that they didn’t just need to know one argument, but must present as many counter-arguments as possible. Maybe we need to do the same in all of our classes. Perhaps it is time for debate across the curriculum, with a real emphasis on putting evidence in context.
But there is more to consider than the art of well-reasoned debate. The potential for understanding that freedom of speech makes available, no matter how controversial, can only be realized if we are willing to listen. Sadly, we don’t seem to be particularly good at this part of the equation. This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on students burning books after the author’s presentation in Georgia, University of Wisconsin moving to crack down on disruptive protestors (shutting down speech), and a case of a dean being dismissed for some remarks on Twitter (or so it appears). None of these examples reflect a willingness to listen to speech that challenges our values and assumptions. This is not a good state of affairs.
The true value of that first amendment will not be realized by covering our ears, liking only posts that support our views, tuning in only to those channels that resonate with our values. We have to resist this habit of cocooning ourselves in our favorite ideas and excluding those that offend. This is vitally important in a university context, where students have the time and support to question assumptions from everywhere.
I agree with Strossen’s support of the first amendment. We should hold onto that Constitutional right with all our might. But just letting everyone speak isn’t enough. We also have to take some responsibility for the conversations that should ensue. Let’s engage the difficult, probe our assumptions, and try our very best to understand those ideas that offend our sensibilities. If we are willing to listen to the diversity of ideas that surround us, we just might find a place to begin sorting through our differences after all.