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Free speech: Instead of fighting back, talk back with civil discourse

102317 Bachani Blog Post pic
The initial reaction of "I don’t agree" or "I don't like that" has now become a justification for the conclusion "that shouldn't exist." (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Free speech has become a highly-contested issue on colleges campuses nationwide, dividing classmates and faculty on either side of an imaginary line. These confrontations have oftentimes led to violent outbursts and disrespectful behavior from those that disagree. What makes matters worse is that some claim intolerant or even violent reactions are an involuntary reflex to being offended.

It is in human nature to instinctively react to stimuli, especially those that appear potentially damaging to us. We may have little control over our initial reactions to ideas that challenge our way of thinking, especially if they seem plainly offensive to us. However, what is in our control is whether we let our defensive impulses guide our actions or choose a path of rational reflection.

As a result, the trend is shifting towards succumbing to our initial, defensive responses in lieu of taking a moment to genuinely consider or even appreciate an idea that is not our own. The initial reaction of "I don't agree" or "I don't like that" has now become a justification for the conclusion "that shouldn't exist."

This urge to shun ideas that are challenging or even offensive took relatively peaceful forms years ago, but has now turned more extreme. At the University of California San Diego, a student stabbed a free speech ball because he was offended by what people chose to write on it. Last month, students at Southern Illinois University were told that their free speech ball was scary. These responses are rooted in a negative reflex that spurs from an unfounded fear; campus police at SIU claimed it was "freaking a lot of people out."

Such responses beg two questions: Why is free speech seen as scary? Why is the urge to censor outweighing the benefit of peaceful discourse between different ideas? I think the answer to both lies in a sociological shift away from discourse and towards antagonism. Oftentimes we are afraid of what we do not know. In the case of free speech, it is entirely possible that some are simply unaware of certain ideas or are new to them. On the other hand, some have foundational beliefs that are comforting and they do not wish to have them proven wrong.

We as a society need to work together to move away from such negative reflexes and cultivate a culture of discourse. Disagreement is inevitable, but the answer to speech that challenges us is not censorship or violence. The only beneficial solution is more and better speech. Discourse will always yield greater results than antagonism. Ideas are made stronger through earnest consideration and critique. This premise is the philosophical foundation of the very universities on which these new battles over free speech are ironically occurring.

The student at UCSD had two choices when he found the free speech ball on his campus offensive. He could respond as he did with violence, attempting to remove someone else's platform to express themselves by using his own capacity to, or to engage in a conversation to learn more about why the Young Americans for Liberty chapter was hosting the event. Had he chosen the latter, the outcome would have been significantly different.

There is always a choice. The moment in which we are so ideologically challenged that we even appear afraid is the moment that requires the greatest level of self-awareness and understanding that the opportunity to learn something new might be present. While we cannot control the reactions we illicit from people, we can control our responses.

I ask that those responses be in the favor of civil discourse, especially in light of the First Amendment. It is this very law that allows us to respond as we choose in the first place. By contesting or protesting against it, those individuals are only doing a disservice to themselves. Instead, remain healthily curious to the ideas that will challenge us and, when they do, engage in respectful conversations that promote peaceful resolutions.

Pooja Bachani is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is Director of Communications at Young Americans for Liberty, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Va., with more than 900 college chapters across the country.

This piece is part of a Free Speech Week series from Young Americans for Liberty. Click here to view the first and second pieces.

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