VOICES

In defense of offensive speech: Our progress is linked to ideas that once angered many

Many of my peers desire to restrict free speech. Yet, we exercise many rights today because unorthodox ideas were eventually recognized as acceptable.

Every right I have today results from movements once deemed “offensive.”

The idea that I, a 21-year-old woman, am not solely dedicated to housework would astonish the founders of Princeton University, where I am a student. It was less than 60 years ago that Princeton began admitting female students, but now women compose 50% of its undergraduate population.

Women were largely excluded from American politics until only a century ago, but today I am a student in the Department of Politics.

American society has progressed so greatly since its founding that now I can marry another woman, or a woman who has undergone gender reassignment surgeries. 

Free speech advanced equality

The gauge of “offensive” evolves so drastically and rapidly that we cannot employ it as a reliable measure for appropriate conduct. We exercise many rights today – including the right to free expression – because unorthodox ideas were eventually recognized by society as acceptable.

This does not immediately warrant all offensive propositions as valid, but proves it is prudent to consider such ideas.  

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Yet, many of my peers – and some of my professors – desire to restrict free speech. In the spirit of considering controversial opinions, I will afford them the courtesy of entertaining their proposition, although they rarely extend such grace to conservative perspectives.

The hypothetical imposition of speech supervision prompts important questions: Who is the adjudicator of offensiveness, and what is the metric?

The tension between free speech and inclusivity initiatives prompted notable professors to found the Academic Freedom Alliance, which is dedicated to promoting and defending academic freedom.

A fundamental flaw in supporting speech limitations is the assumption that the arbiters who would impose restrictions share your precise evaluation of what should be limited. I challenge those willing to relinquish free speech to ask themselves whether they are comfortable with their political opponents legislating the regulations.

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If we formally introduce a system to monitor speech, then we surrender the full breadth of acceptable opinions to hegemonic judges, whose power cannot be easily challenged and who are not subject to any immediate boundaries. There is no limit to what these speech superiors could impose. 

If you enable an institution or governing body to ban a word on the sole premise that it is offensive – to provide an example would be needlessly incendiary – then there is no barrier for punishing whole statements.

I have heard many insensitive comments on campus, ones that I (among others) found derogatory. Presumably, others will say that they have heard insensitive comments by me. How would we formally measure the offensiveness of these comments? By the number of people offended? By the intensity of offense experienced by the listeners? Without a consistent metric, individuals are able to file baseless claims. 

If limitations on speech were enacted, I suspect that the consequences would be varied. Would a woman and a man face the same disciplinary action for criticisms of feminism? Would a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim be held to the same standards for comments on the Middle Eastern conflict? Would the statements “Trump supporters are racist” and “Biden supporters are racist” be similarly penalized? Would public support for either communism or fascism be equally investigated?

It is terrifying that the answers to these questions are unclear. It is more terrifying that the answer to any of these questions may be “no, the punishments are unequal.”

Purportedly, Princeton University is structurally racist. More than 350 faculty members signed an open letter last July that called “upon the University to take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus.”

If the institution enabled – and even upheld – racism, then why would one dare give the administrators who run that institution power over speech? Surely, such a destructive tool would be another weapon against minorities.

Restricting speech will hurt minorities

Free speech controversies are not exclusive to Princeton. There is a national debate on critical race theory and its validity in the classroom. Proponents argue that CRT provides necessary historical context on racial relations; opponents insist it is anti-American indoctrination and have sought to ban it from classrooms.

The apparent tension between free speech and inclusivity initiatives prompted notable professors, including Princeton affiliates, to found the Academic Freedom Alliance, which is dedicated to promoting and defending academic freedom. In only a few months, the organization has accumulated impressive victories.

However, we cannot expect legal wins, brief university statements and cancelled investigations to immediately translate to campus culture and classroom settings. We need to actively promote diversity – intellectual diversity – among students, faculty and administrators by encouraging respectful debate between ideological counterparts. 

The current anti-racism movement must fight against oppression, but it cannot rescind the rights that were intensely fought for, including free speech.  

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The movement to ban offensive rhetoric fails to acknowledge the full scope of free expression: It does not protect ideas, but rather, enables them to be challenged.

To be clear, we should not strive to be offensive. That would be cruel and disrespectful. Instead, I am arguing that we should not legislate offensiveness, and that any attempts to do so – outside the narrowest exceptions, such as defamation and perjury – will prove incoherent and illogical.

It is through intellectual debate, which depends on free speech, that the scope of human rights continues to broaden. 

After all, I am able to express these thoughts only because our society eventually decided that it was no longer offensive for women to be educated.  

Abigail Anthony (@abigailandwords) is a rising junior at Princeton University, studying politics and linguistics.