Being an occasionally voluble person — feel free to laugh up your sleeve at that understatement — I read with interest a piece that appeared in The Economist about how our current digital age is essentially a golden era for free speech.
I wholeheartedly agree, and even if you don’t, after watching Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency these past few months, I imagine you have no choice but to change your mind. Whether you attribute his free speech to white privilege, being rich, being, well, a jerk — or some combination of all three — you can’t deny that Trump excels at freely speaking his mind.
But according to this article “speaking out is becoming more dangerous … curbs on free speech have grown tighter.” The piece detailed three ways that free speech is under attack: increased repression by governments, a worrying number of other countries are enforcing censorship by assassination, and “the idea has spread that people and groups have a right not to be offended.”
Thankfully, gratefully, here in the U.S., we don’t have to worry as much as in other places in the world about government repression or entities routinely enforcing censorship by killing the free speaker. Otherwise, yours truly might at this moment be penning this blog from a cabin in the French or Canadian countryside. But that last one? The idea that people and groups have a right not to be offended? That gave me pause because it’s true.
The author writes, “Politeness is a virtue, after all. But if I have a right not to be offended, that means someone must police what you say about me, or about the things I hold dear, such as my ethnic group, religion, or even political beliefs. Since offense is subjective, the power to police it is both vast and arbitrary.”
That’s even more troubling because I agree with the author that “without the contest of ideas, the world is timid and ignorant.” At least, it can be timid and ignorant.
Being an outspoken minority — pardon, double minority — I excel at speaking my mind. Fortunately, my workplace is quite liberal, and as a member of the media, I’m granted a bit of license when it comes to communicating. But that’s not always a good thing. Certainly, my faux surreptitious pleasure in certain people’s shock when I am vocal about this or that is not PC. But it is my right to smirk and/or be entertained when I speak on a topic, and am met with a wide-eyed look of shock.
I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump says, nor do I think most of his comments are wise for an adult, especially one looking to lead this great nation and maintain or improve our position on the global stage. In fact, when Hillary Clinton recently said, “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different, they’re dangerously incoherent,” and called his policy declarations “a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” I clapped in my head. But I simply have to hope with folded hands that the American people can see a better way come voting day, because I wholeheartedly support his right to say what he likes.
As an admittedly/occasionally progressive thinker, it would be silly for me to find value in censoring ideas just because I find them objectionable. Even to the Trumps of the world, I say speak out. As far as I can tell, being silent has yet to break down the walls of intolerance or sway an organization away from discriminatory practices toward a freer, more tolerant talent management strategy. It has yet to change laws that enable the diverse people in this country and others to live, work and play how they like, and being silent certainly hasn’t helped to improve most minorities safety or quality of living.
True, freedom of speech can have the unpleasant side effect of spreading hateful messages and ideas, but it takes all kinds to make a world — and a workplace — and I’d always rather know exactly where I stand and how someone feels about me than not.
I agree with The Economist that “free expression is the bedrock of all liberties. Free speech is the best defense against bad government. Politicians who err (that is, all of them) should be subjected to unfettered criticism. Those who hear it may respond to it; those who silence it may never find out how their policies misfired.”
That goes for business leaders as well. Of course, I know that kind of freedom in the workplace is a relatively pie-in-the-sky idea. Free speech and authenticity, its cohort in a diversity context, is often fraught with obvious and not so obvious peril. In the workplace, it would be extremely naïve for a minority — for anyone, really — to believe that they really can bring their whole self to work, including saying exactly what they like, how they like, when they like.
Free speech and a penchant, even a policy or a culture that supports an easy exchange of ideas is extremely valuable. As The Economist states, “In all areas of life, free debate sorts good ideas from bad ones. Science cannot develop unless old certainties are queried.” But currently, in this world, and this global marketplace, there are limits. Those who excel often know instinctively what those limits are and how not to cross those visible and invisible lines.
The key is to be open and free in a way that is thoughtful, that suggests openness to learning and change and a willingness to retain — as much as possible — a dignified and respectful forum in which to communicate, collaborate and innovate.
Trump’s problem is not that his ideas are horrid — many believe in him and in those ideas — it’s that he is careless about people, their rights and their ability to enjoy and exercise the same freedom of speech that he has embraced himself.
So, yeah. This is a bit of a golden era for free speech. But that doesn’t mean that free speech doesn’t have a cost.