Haley Sweetland Edwards' The View article entitled "The fallacy of 'free speech'" in the December 14 issue of Time riveted me. I'd been waiting for someone to come along and point out that the recent uproar on campuses around the country regarding students' delicate sensibilities needed more than a cursory report. Edwards calls it "This wave of political correctness" that includes the issues of racism, rape, sexism, and the safety of minority students from bullying and other verbal abuse.
My favorite sentence in this well-written article is this: "They are rejecting the sometimes crushing but always formative experience of discovering that you disagree, deeply and fundamentally, with a friend, and then deciding to stay friends anyway." But nowhere in this article did I find the words respect or civil discourse. Instead, the article quite effectively mirrors the divide in our society that it describes, i.e. between conservative and liberals, the Donald Trumps of the world who would say whatever pops into their heads and those who believe in tact not to pacify but to be able to talk with those who disagree with them and seek to understand.
My second favorite sentence: "Both defenders of PC culture and its critics argue that in order for democracy to work, everyone must feel welcome to say what they think, to engage with the issues that bedevil us as a society." Yes! We need to encourage civil discussion and engagement between people with opposing ideas or beliefs. But how? Ms. Edwards doesn't really make any suggestions. She goes for that pithy quote to end the piece instead: Donald Trump (of course) on what he'd do about terrorism, i.e. he's "going to bomb the sh-t out of them." Violence justifies and perpetuates violence in his mind, it seems.
What can we do?
I thought of how I was raised in a lower middle class family where one parent was a Republican and the other a Democrat. If we kids wanted to discuss politics, we needed to be informed, i.e. know the issues and what others were saying and suggesting. It wasn't enough just to say something was wrong or bad. There had to be a substantive reason followed by at least one suggested way to change or improve it. We were not allowed to call our parents names, slurs, or threaten violence against them. We were taught to treat everyone with respect, beginning with our parents, no matter who they were or what they thought.
My parents listened, challenged our ideas, questioned our analyses, also with respect. We felt heard. In school, our teachers did the same with us. We were expected to read and think about difficult subjects, especially in college, to learn about other viewpoints and seek to understand them. We were prepared to enter the adult world outside of family and academia. I suspect that the current college students who are so concerned about their psychological and emotional safety may not have grown up being heard, respected, and accepted as we were. And why not?
These students are giving us an opportunity to improve civil discourse now and in the future. They are pointing out for us that they have not been prepared as they should have been to participate in a democracy in which free speech and freewheeling civil discourse are the rule, not the exception. As long as there are people who persist in putting down respectful, civil discourse (yes, Donald Trump among many, many others who immediately jump to calling it all "political correctness" enforced by "the thought police"), who prefer violence over discussion, no one can feel psychologically and emotionally safe and secure. Nothing can be achieved with people yelling at each other and afraid they will not be respected. No one can feel encouraged to be creative in approaching problems or working together to brainstorm and quite possibly finding good solutions.
We need respectful, civil discourse in order to solve problems in this country, encourage creative approaches to issues, and rise above the fearful responses of hate speech directed to things or people we don't like or understand. We cannot allow fear to be our primary motivation in living. Ms. Edwards has painted a depressing picture in her article. Let it be a call to action so that free speech does not die from a lack of the oxygen of respectful, civil discourse.