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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Superficial comfort threat to freedom

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-4c0a21ad-e8e3-9dc7-7a25-56520e2a1c20">The freedom to express oneself is perhaps the most cherished and crucial guiding principle of our modern, liberal society. Embedded within our Constitution is the notion that our liberty to think, write, and say what we want isn’t granted by some arbitrary collection of political leaders, but rather that it is a liberty that exists naturally due to our own inherent humanity. Our own thoughts and our desire to express them are not contingent upon approval by others, only upon our own ability to conjure up those thoughts and ideas. To acknowledge this truth is to acknowledge our self-ownership, for if we cannot have dominion over what to say and think, then we can never have control over where we take our lives.

At this current moment, there is a troubling trend making its way across this nation, a trend that threatens the fundamental values of open discourse and tolerance that have made this country powerful and dynamic. It seems that every week, a different speaker is disinvited from a college campus, or an unlucky student faces castigation for an unwelcome opinion. Among these unfortunate individuals is conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, who was barred from speaking at CSU Los Angeles due to his controversial views on trigger warnings and on the Black Lives Matter movement. The justifications given for such actions have become all too familiar, and they center around the notion of comfort. More specifically, they center around a belief that students should be shielded from ideas that threaten their perceived sense of safety and well-being. Essentially, ideas must now pass approval tests, and those that fail are no longer welcome in the same places that claim to be beacons of intellectualism and open inquiry.

It must be accepted that whenever ideas are discussed and debated, there exists the chance that some will feel uneasy, and this only becomes truer as the ideas brought forth are more controversial. This uneasiness, however, is vital in assuring that the discourse is meaningful and conducive to rigorous inquiry. When we are uncomfortable, we are forced to engage in valuable introspection, forced to challenge our assumptions and beliefs in ways we might not have been able to if we lived in a bubble of constant pleasantries. The discomfort may, in fact, lead us to change our minds and accept new truths that weren’t evident before. Equally as important, our existing beliefs may in fact become stronger, as we have forced ourselves to challenge them and in the process understand their fundamental pillars and strengths. This is true regardless of how offensive and deplorable certain thoughts and statements may seem to the vast majority of us.

Consider the racial bigots and homophobes whose statements may shock and upset us. I will argue that without their ability to express those ideas, we wouldn’t fully understand why we find them so deplorable in the first place. Whenever we hear of the antics of groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist church, we are further reminded of how different our beliefs are to theirs and why they’re so different. We examine our own lives and perhaps even remember times in our past when we weren’t as open and inclusive as we are now. More importantly, unrestricted freedom of expression allows us to identify those we find most deplorable. If we choose to identify and avoid them, that is our own right and prerogative. Otherwise, instead of cowering from them, we may choose to confront them, not with threats of censorship and persecution but with offers of dialogue and conversation. We must not always assume the worst of our opponents. The fact that their statements may contain vile hatred does not mean that their hearts are always destined to be full of the same thing. It is possible that they have never had a meaningful opportunity to engage those who think differently, and giving them that chance may produce surprising but meaningful outcomes. Of course, there exists no guarantee of this, but banning bigoted speech eliminates the possibility completely. Those hateful ideas won’t die simply because we criminalise their expression. Instead, they will ferment further in an environment of isolation, an environment that may in fact lead to them become more heinous and dangerous.

Putting our sense of comfort and ease ahead of freedom and inquiry will inevitably lead to harmful repercussions that may not be so clear now. In due time, intellectual stagnation will be more of the norm, and the dynamism of our society, the dynamism that is only possible when we are free to think and convey what we wish, will be nothing more than a fleeting memory. Let us save our principles while we still can, and in the process reignite the spark that made us great to begin with.

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