Protecting free speech: When being ‘right’ is not enough

Essence Perry

Young people are the beating heart of society. Together, we are a beacon of progress and change for a future that seems in dire need of a revolutionary spirit and revival. Progress will continue only by students debating, discussing and challenging the status quo – and college campuses serve as the repositories for this change. College fosters our mental, emotional and, most importantly, our moral capabilities. It melds our creative energies, dreams and passions to produce effective leaders for the future. To produce young leaders, colleges have the responsibility not only to educate students but to prepare them to advocate for themselves, think critically, feel deeply and communicate their ideas to the world.

There has never been another time in history where we have had so much access to education and information, so much so the twenty-first century has been dubbed the “Information Age.” Yet, despite all of this information, the world is facing impending danger from multiple fronts, ranging from climate change to a global rise in right-wing populism. We have the most advanced assessments and information about these problems, yet nothing is changing because the majority of people aren’t learning and understanding this information. Our elected representatives don’t believe in climate change, parents don’t vaccinate their children and we vote nationalists into office. The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge or information; it is that students lack the skills needed to persuasively communicate their knowledge to the general public or to those who hold different views than them. We are becoming smarter and learning more, but that knowledge is useless if it remains in an academic echo chamber for only the educated elite to postulate upon. Academia makes students think that being “right” or having the best idea is enough to generate change, but we are seeing the exact opposite being true. We are failing to connect to the majority of people and the people we are trying to serve because we cannot make our ideas accessible. I posit a few reasons for this: educated people only perpetuate their ideas with likeminded and equally educated people, they don’t attempt to understand opposing viewpoints and they ignore people they find vitriolic.

This highlights the importance of free speech, especially for college students. Students have the responsibility to seek the truth at all costs and make these truths accessible to everyone, especially with people who may disagree or challenge us. Free speech ensures that all ideas are exposed and brought out in the open. It is only after we understand our opponents’ arguments that we can strengthen our own and make them digestible to the rest of society. To combat bigotry like racism, sexism and xenophobia – beliefs that are rooted in ignorance and fueled by fear – we must be able to tactically invalidate their fallacies and falsities. Remaining ignorant of their arguments allows these ideologies to fester. It is important to understand the roots of hate ideologies; it isn’t acceptable or useful to simply label people as irrational. Yes, at first, it will make students feel uncomfortable. But we need to use that discomfort as a fuel to convince others of our ideas. We need to challenge ourselves to take into consideration their mindset, listen to their opinions to make our own ideas stronger and approachable.

Being “right” isn’t enough anymore; we need to connect and reach people of all types. This can only happen through discourse that provokes us and forces us to reflect on how we can make change.

Essence Perry ’22 is from Fitchburg, Mass. Her major is undecided.