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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Column: To speak or not to speak

Ask virtually anybody about what the most important part of the Constitution is and they will probably refer to the First Amendment, which gives us freedom of speech. The intensity of opinions last week, in response to Tiffany Lew’s column “The Rise of the Girly Men,” showed how the differences in beliefs can blow up and become a major issue.

College campuses should be places that allow sharply contrasting points of view to be freely debated. A diversity of viewpoints should be encouraged because it helps us to be educated beyond what we simply read in textbooks. A college campus itself is a fantastic forum to do this, because of the numbers of intelligent young people who are developing their own worldview.

Unfortunately, like in any other large public forum, groupthink can become pervasive. It’s comfortable to merely accept the beliefs and acceptable positions of the crowd. Sticking to an unpopular belief can cause you to be ridiculed, looked on with contempt, and ostracized from your peers.

If you truly believe that what you are saying is correct, however, you must be willing to accept these consequences.

Some people found the comments made in Tiffany’s column to be deeply offensive so they decided to speak out against her. There is nothing wrong with that.

I think that where real danger lies is in the willingness to simply shut down speech that is deemed “offensive.” Tiffany regretted her comments and later apologized for them – she clearly did not intend to anger people. But what if she stuck by what she had said or had written about something else that another group of people found offensive?

If certain values are wrong, then show them why you think they are wrong and try to convince other people that your ideas and values are better. The truth usually finds a way to defeat lies and distortions. The danger to free speech is that it can be silenced, not that speech itself silences others.

Sure, there are times when a bad idea becomes accepted and adopted, but that is the risk that we take by having a free society. We have the freedom to be both right and wrong, and we let decisions of right and wrong be made by all individuals in society.

Over time there is a general agreement of what is acceptable and what is not. This is determined by forming a majority consensus. This is not a perfect determination, but can you really think of a better way?

Sometimes another person’s beliefs will shock you and make you angry. Tolerance of other opinions is necessary, but liking them or agreeing with their words and actions is certainly not. Respecting the right of the minority opinion to exist ensures that when you find yourself in the minority, you will also be treated with respect.

Freedom of speech is important because it helps us to find truth, but finding truth can be an ugly and bitter affair. Just look at the political landscape in America and you will see just that. A divide in viewpoints and in opinion is not bad but both natural and necessary.

One of the reasons that the American political system has been so stable over time is that those who lose elections have a chance to win the next one and any one thereafter. In this way you can lose an argument and lose power, but you aren’t forced to accept that the other side is right because of it. You only have to accept that you lost an election. These principles apply to both politics on the large scale and the small – the large scale being in Washington D.C., and the small scale being human interaction in everyday life.

A great writer, George Orwell, once said, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Listening to people whom you detest and whose ideas you find repulsive is certainly a lot better than being literally beaten over the head by them. Sometimes it is important to listen to people who say unseemly or terrible things because they just might be right. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

JARRETT STEPMAN would like to hear your opinion without being beaten over the head. You can send him your opinions at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.

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