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Opinion In defense of free speech

Students wait outside the office of John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington, on Nov. 13. The sit-in was in solidarity with other student protests, including at the University of Missouri and Yale University, over racial discrimination on campus. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

I think it’s a great mistake to write off what is happening on campus right now as the demands of coddled youngsters for more coddling. Good luck with that approach. We are going to outlive you.

There is a much more serious discussion to be had.

Forty percent of millennials favor government restrictions on offensive speech. 40 percent!

That is high. Let me put my cards on the table: I am not one of those millennials.

I think this is a distinct discussion from the one about carving out safe spaces, and it’s worth having. Speaking up in favor of free speech as a principle is a tricky business for a simple reason: The impact of offensive speech is not evenly distributed. It is easier to view the theoretical curtailing of offensive speech as The Real Horror when you have never had and can never have the experience of being on the receiving end. (As Louis CK jokes, “I’m a white man. You can’t even hurt my feelings! What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? ‘Hey, cracker.’ ‘Uh. Ruined my day. Boy, shouldn’t have called me a cracker. Bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag.'”)

Mistaking a conversation about experiences for one about principle can create an unwinnable argument. You can’t argue with another person’s experience. “That happened to you? Well, it didn’t happen to ME!” is not an effective counterargument. “You shouldn’t feel that way” is a nonstarter.

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But “Okay. This happened. So what should we do?” is a different discussion.

It’s clear: People are hurting. They are fed up and they are speaking out. We are at a tipping point.

If what we want is a safe and civil environment unmarked by hateful speech and racism, how do we accomplish this? Are bans on speech the best way to make this happen? Or are those — as the ACLU feels, and some experience of campus speech bans has shown — too potentially double-edged, the wrong instrument for this task? On a college level, is giving more policing power to the same flawed institution you are protesting in the first place the best way to go?

What do we do?

I would submit that we have another, more subtle tool at our disposal that falls short of legal restrictions: courtesy. Courtesy/politeness/civility can get a bad rep as something to do with tone policing or tiny forks, but it reaches where official top-down policies cannot: It controls what you do when unobserved. Its rules for what constitutes decent behavior carry no legal force, but can govern people’s choices just as effectively as written laws.

Oscar Wilde once quipped that “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” He had a point.

Talking about his decision to stop using the name of Washington’s football team, columnist Charles Krauthammer observed that: “Here’s the key point: You would stop not because of the language police. … But simply because the word was tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated. Proof? You wouldn’t even use the word in private, where being harassed for political incorrectness is not an issue.”

To end offensive speech, what needs to shift are social standards, not legal ones. People sometimes confuse one person in a particular situation turning to someone else and saying, “You should not say that,” with censorship. Nope. That’s just speech. There’s a difference between officially sanctioned speech restrictions and people standing up to you when they think you’re wrong.

Persuasion is more effective than restriction. Put a sign up at a pool that says POOL POLICY: NO RUNNING and people will not run around that pool. Convince someone of why running around a pool is dangerous, and he will not run around a pool ever in his entire life. One person doesn’t run because he thinks the consequence is getting kicked out of that particular pool. The other doesn’t because he understands that the consequence is actually much more serious.

The same thing happens with speakers and comedians on campus. Not getting laughed at isn’t censorship, much as it rankles. It’s a social consequence of speech. You CAN say whatever you want. But we don’t have to laugh. Not being allowed to speak in the first place, however, is censorship, and it also means that the speaker will not have the opportunity to realize that his joke isn’t funny.

In the interim, this is awful for the people who have to sit in the audience hearing an unfunny joke at their expense for the umpteenth time. It is unpleasant, and it is unfair. So the more people who speak up when they hear speech they object to, the better. That’s the way new standards get set. Changing these standards is a long struggle, and because the burden of offensive speech is not equitably distributed, I don’t think the desire for a safe space where you don’t have to wage this battle every moment of every day is something that can be casually dismissed.

The ultimate goal here is not a world that is merely without slurs against minority groups but a world without racism. That is a winning idea. And when you have a winning cause, freedom of speech is on your side. Instead of banning the expression of thoughts you wish people didn’t have, give people the space to tell you what they are really thinking so that you can convince them otherwise — or learn what they are really made of.

“You should never say that, ever” and “You shouldn’t be allowed to say that” are two different statements. The first one can be a powerful tool. I think it’s a better way out than the second.