In 1840, a Frenchman returned to his homeland from his journey to America and later published “Democracy in America,” a modern classic on the American political system. That young man, Alexis de Tocqueville, forever changed the way Europe viewed a former colony and the way that former colony viewed itself. Tocqueville was impressed by what he saw but warned: “If ever freedom is lost in America, that will be due to the … majority driving minorities to desperation.”
Today, on America’s college campuses, the opposite seems to be true, whereby a small, vocal minority of the student population is driving majorities and those with differing viewpoints to silence based on rhetoric alone. Small groups of students take control of public discourse and prevent debate and the free exchange of ideas.
You have heard this before, but I will say it now: Political correctness is threatening free speech on our college campuses. George Washington said it best: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
This is important, but not just for the sake of defending our constitutional right to free speech. Whatever his faults, this year’s Republican presidential nominee Donald Drumpf articulated a frustration many are feeling but are too afraid to vocalize, and this has given him a boost in popularity. He correctly identified a huge problem in our higher education institutions: political correctness and safe spaces are endangering our first amendment right to say what we believe, even if it offends others. To quote Drumpf directly,“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct …”
I am not writing a blank check for racists, homophobes, misogynists or presidential nominees to insult people just for the sake of it. I am, however, arguing for the right of those who have unpopular opinions to defend them.
I came to Georgetown from France, a place that culturally holds free speech as a cornerstone of society. We believe that every opinion has value, and it should be no one’s prerogative to dictate which opinions are heard based on offending public sensibilities.
We are confident in our free democracy, and free expression is an integral part of this, even if we have to pay a heavy price for it. No one knows this better than the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, murdered last year by Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate for their caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. I proudly sport a “Je suis Charlie” sticker on my laptop, not because I approve of the paper’s disrespectful renderings of every faith, including my own. Like Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I “disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It is hard to add something to this debate about free speech without sounding like a broken record. However, I can’t help but try to implore students to be a little more open-minded. When I heard that students on campus, well-meaning as they were, tried to stop Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson from speaking at the commencement ceremony in May 2016 because of his affiliation with deporting people who were in the United States illegally, I was horrified. The letter UndocuHoyas, with support from Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, delivered to the School of Foreign Service Dean’s Office warned that his speech would “create an unsafe environment.” I found myself disturbed not by his policies, but students’ attempts to curtail what and to whom we were allowed to listen.
Over my years at Georgetown, I have heard from people I completely disagree with. I was challenged by speakers who believe that a woman’s right to choose is a mortal sin. I was challenged by speakers who believe Israel is an apartheid state. I was challenged by people who said France is no longer relevant, and the European Union is a failed enterprise.
These views challenge the core of who I am, but I appreciated hearing them nonetheless. If you solely listen to people who think the same as you, it puts you in an echo chamber, hearing your own words and opinions reverberated back at you. You begin to believe everyone thinks the same way as you do.
Guess what, though? Not everybody does. If you are going to learn that anywhere, it should be on a college campus.
Annabelle Timsit is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Use Your Words appears every other Friday.
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