There is power in words, as anyone who has been stirred by a speech, a scribe, a sermon, or a song can attest. Words can heal or hurt, tear down or build up, inspire or provoke, which is why we must choose and use them wisely. But use them we must. As Christians and as Americans — in that order — we should be able to speak our minds and share our hearts. Regrettably, there’s a growing movement to stifle freedom of speech in this “land of the free.” It’s at odds not only with our country’s founding principles, but also our faith.
The examples abound. Newsweek reports that “(m)ore than half of America’s colleges and universities now have restrictive speech codes. … American college administrators and many students have sought to confine speech to special zones and agitated for restrictions on language in classrooms.”
A national survey of college students reveals that 54 percent say “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.”
Stifling Constructive Conversations
More than half of America’s colleges and universities now have restrictive speech codes.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 49.3 percent of universities surveyed “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free-speech rights of students.”
The Atlantic recently found that “69 percent of college students support disciplinary action against either students or faculty members who use intentionally offensive language or commit ‘micro-aggressions.’” (For those uninitiated to the lexicon of political correctness, “micro-aggressions” are “actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence,” as FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt explain.)
Forty percent of millennials (the generation born between 1981 and 2000) believe “the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” By way of comparison, just 27 percent of Generation Xers and 24 percent of baby boomers support such censorship.
The millennials are getting just what they want, at least on campus. As The Atlantic reports, “Brown University, Johns Hopkins University, Williams College and Haverford College, among others schools, withdrew speaking invitations … because students objected to the views or political ideology of the invited speaker.”
Then there’s the case of Erika and Nicholas Christakis. Before Halloween last year, the Yale University Intercultural Affairs Committee warned students against “culturally insensitive” costumes and urged them to avoid “wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.”
In an email response, Erika Christakis, a professor and faculty-in-residence at one of the school’s colleges, asked, “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?” And she offered a commonsense alternative to censorship: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Her comments triggered a firestorm of manufactured outrage — petitions, angry confrontations, online threats — that ultimately led both her and her husband (also a professor at Yale) to resign their administrative posts. All this was in response to the notion that adults should be allowed to wear costumes of their choosing, that both the costume wearer and costume viewer should be able to deal with the consequences, and that adults shouldn’t need to be protected from free expression and free speech.
The expletive-laced, in-your-face reactions to Professor Christakis’ email reveals a deep and tragic irony: Those who determine which words and which ideas are out of bounds seem to think that they have a right to freedom of speech, but others don’t and/or that freedom of speech translates into the right to never have their words or ideas challenged. It calls to mind what Winston Churchill said of free speech: “Some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”
Close-Minded Safe Spaces
In short, many American universities — once bastions of free expression and free speech, political inquiry, open debate, clashing ideas, and dissenting viewpoints — have turned into close-minded, rigid, philosophically conformist, politically constrained environments characterized by “trigger warnings,” “speech codes,” and “safe spaces.”
The result, as colleges ban certain words and banish certain speakers from campus, is that we are producing a generation of moral pygmies incapable of developing, let alone defending, their own beliefs and ideas. Thoughtfully sharing and considering ideas is how individuals develop and strengthen their own beliefs. Ideas, beliefs, and opinions are like muscle: They need to be tested and pushed. When they’re not, they atrophy. When that happens, an individual becomes either swayed by anything, or unable to consider anything other than what’s said in his safe-space echo chamber.
How did we get here? A couple of generations of political correctness had the effect of twisting language from a way to convey ideas into a way to avoid offense. Each little act of censorship had the effect of encouraging more sensitivity, which led to more political correctness and more censorship, which led to hypersensitivity. Before long, students demanded protection from anything that would make them feel uncomfortable: “offensive” words, “hurtful” words, “upsetting” words.
Thus, “trigger warnings” — what Lukianoff and Haidt define as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response” — are pasted onto controversial texts. “Safe spaces” are set aside to shield students from upsetting words, ideas, and language. And special committees define what can and cannot be said, which explains the emergence of diversity instruction, sensitivity training, and speech codes.
Depending on the campus, the list of banned words and phrases includes “violate,” “man up,” “retarded,” “ghetto,” “crazy,” “rape,” “gypped,” “illegal alien,” “you people,” “those foreigners,” “the gay lifestyle,” “sexual preference,” “lame,” “normal,” “mothering,” “fathering,” “where were you born?” and even “politically correct” because it “has become a way to … say that people are being too ‘sensitive.’”
We Have No Freedom From Speech
What the speech police and those demanding protection from upsetting words forget — or simply don’t know — is that there is nothing in the Constitution ensuring a right not to be offended. We are blessed and sometimes burdened by freedom of speech. But there is no freedom from speech — especially in a college setting.
The University of Chicago wrestled with this issue back in 1967, concluding that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”
Not surprisingly, the University of Chicago recently sent incoming freshmen a blunt statement of the school’s commitment to free speech: “We do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
To its credit, the school understands that free societies depend on the free exchange of ideas and opinions and beliefs. That presupposes the use of words — uplifting words, upsetting words, even ugly words. The First Amendment not only allows for that — it encourages that.
Why? Perhaps it’s because the Founders understood that the best antidote to ugly ideas and ugly words is exposing them — and those who believe them — to the light, forcing them to compete in the arena of ideas and challenging people of goodwill to respond.
Yet we know the old playground saying that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not strictly true. Words can wound and leave lasting scars. As a writer, I strive never to abuse the right to speak freely — a right my grandfathers and father fought to defend. So I pray that my words generate more light than heat, that my facts are accurate, that my opinions — even when they challenge the policies or positions of a person — steer clear of ad hominem (or personal) attacks.
Speaking the Truth with Love
As with so much of the Christian life, intent and motive are as important as action. Our intent in sharing our opinions and beliefs should never be to offend others. However, if our opinions and beliefs happen to offend others, that doesn’t mean sharing them is wrong. In fact, it may mean we’re doing exactly what Jesus expects of us. Paul observed that the cross itself is an offense to many. We’re bound to offend someone when we share our beliefs and when we challenge the beliefs of others.
That may explain why there is no commandment against offending someone. Moses offended Pharaoh. Samuel offended Saul. Nathan offended David. The prophets offended most of the people to whom they spoke. Mordecai may not have offended Esther, but he surely made her feel uncomfortable.
Moses offended Pharaoh. Samuel offended Saul. Nathan offended David. The prophets offended most of the people to whom they spoke.
Jesus’s words often offended those within earshot, even His closest followers. When He shared the Beatitudes, Jesus offended the wealthy and the comfortable. By focusing on the heart of the law rather than the letter of the law, He offended the Pharisees. The truths He revealed angered the religious, confused Nicodemus, saved the lost, frightened Pilate, and transformed the world.
Likewise, John the Baptist’s words embarrassed Herod. Peter’s words baffled and frustrated the Sanhedrin. Encouraged by the Lord, Paul never stopped speaking and writing. Indeed, Paul seemed to make a living out of offending people: Religious leaders and political power brokers and even his fellow apostles found themselves on the sharp end of Paul’s pointed words. The list includes Peter, Barnabas, city fathers in Athens, businessmen in Ephesus, people in Jerusalem, believers in Rome and Corinth (here and here), the High Priest Ananias, King Agrippa, and others. At one point, Paul noted that even if his words caused “sorrow” or “hurt,” he did not regret it because he knew that sorrow and hurt in this case would lead to repentance.
As followers of Christ, we are called to speak the truth — but always in love. That’s why James admonished “those who consider themselves religious” to “keep a tight rein on their tongues.” If not, their words can destroy like fire and deadly poison. Of course, it pays to recall that James urged each person — not the government, not the speech police, not a campus review board — to tame his tongue.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.