Free speech means speaking freely

Allow me to start this editorial with a metaphor:  I’m a gym rat.  When you go to the gym you intentionally and routinely expose your body to varying degrees of abuse, for lack of better words, in an attempt to stimulate muscle growth. Failure to expose your body to sufficient opposition will yield little in the way of results, and will render the entire activity a waste of time.  This isn’t a concept unique to body-building; it can be found across the board in other disciplines such as psychology and moral philosophy.  Another example presented in a 2008 study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) detailed the importance of early childhood exposure to peanuts to prevent the development of peanut allergies. The fundamental premise that I’m trying to lay out for you was set forth in no small part by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), which spoke at great length about how important it was for any individual to interact with people that have well formulated, oppositional viewpoints in order to sharpen their own argument and prevent that ideology from slipping into a pathological state.

American culture has come a long way since the time of the Revolutionary War. We’ve stutter-stepped our way through a variety of modes of being as a mass entity that included an “honor culture” stage, complete with Vice Presidential duels.  A “dignity culture” stage where people essentially toughed out of their respective hardships wordlessly for the sake of saving face, and most recently, “social justice culture,” which brings with it a focus on safety as well as a subculture that instantiates speech codes and “safe spaces.” And what a fine endeavor that is, right? The problem with this new culture of safety, which has already infected so many other campuses, is that it champions the status of the victim, places a moral responsibility on authority figures and fosters patterns of behavior that resemble disorders such as depression, anxiety and worst of all abject paranoia.  In an ironic twist, safety culture counterproductively teaches individuals to generalize and emphasize their frailties, while simultaneously inhibiting access to opportunities for personal growth.  To recapitulate: safety culture, like the issue surrounding peanut allergies, prevents us from receiving the necessary exposure to tough concepts that we need in order to deal with these obstacles when it matters most–in real life.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here trying to trash the University.  The Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE – www.thefire.org) has given our home an overall rating of “yellow,” noting that our only questionable speech code infringement came at the hands of the University Campus Climate Intervention Team (CCIT).  That’s not bad, but not being bad does not automatically mean we are good, or as good as we could be. On the contrary, the school has gone out of its way to institute a thorough and sweeping Social Equity program, which I have no issue with; but has done little in regards to that most fundamental of human rights: free speech.  That’s why I’d like to suggest, as a matter of proactivity, that the school adopt and publish a “Statement of Principles of Free Expression,” similar to what the University of Chicago did in 2012, in an effort to introduce honest dialogue, intellectual diversity and most of all robust-counter speech against a culture that increasingly seeks to interfere with, obstruct or suppress ideas that they find to be “offensive” or against popular opinion.

Ryan Wasser is a graduate student pursuing a WTC English MA.    RW851045@wcupa.edu

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