I wish that I could tell you that I fought the good fight, that I stood up for free speech, that I argued against the censorship of “hate speech,” and that I did all of this while banging my fist upon a bust of Cecil Rhodes. How I wish I could tell you of my harrowing battle for the right to free speech—but I can’t. Instead, I can say that the silencing of free speech and alternative opinions is far easier than creating a policy or law blocking the discussion of a differing opinion.
A cultural suppression of ideas is occurring, even if laws are not yet in place to allow it.
Early on in one of my graduate courses, my class read an academic essay that discussed ongoing arguments about the purpose of K-12 education. The article specifically addressed the idea that American education should lead to a pro-American attitude. It argued that since America’s diversity is too difficult to comprehensively define and therefore effectively teach, we should consider education as a means to teach our citizens proper civic engagement, as opposed to attempting to use education to create a sense of American nationalism to inspire civic engagement.
Near the end of lecture, I decided to speak up about a problem I noticed with the author’s logic. I suggested to the class that proper civic engagement would ultimately be founded in an idea of American civic engagement because the engagement occurs in America and utilizes American political systems. Thus, the article had not moved beyond its criticism; it had not moved beyond the idea of civic engagement not creating this pro-American attitude. Until I spoke up, all the comments and discussion had been in praise of this article. While I did not criticize the base idea of the article outright, when I said that I felt the author had contradicted himself, other students audibly clucked their tongues in response, and my professor snapped at me.
Two semesters later, in a class with the same group of students, we read a more liberal-based article about the role privilege plays in an individual’s success. The article claimed that Bill Gates only become successful because his parents had money and lived near a computer lab when Gates was growing up.
I related this type of argument to another scenario and I asked if, using the argument of luck instead of privilege, “Should we blame racist or apathetic teachers for their shortcomings? Are they only failing because they were not lucky enough to attend such an illustrious, ideologically pure institution like UW-Madison?” The girl who spoke after me restrained herself out of “respect for our friendship,” but she stammered over her words, and her hands visibly shook because I made such a suggestion.
Finally, at the end of my graduate program, on the day of our thesis presentation, we made friendship bracelets—yes, friendship bracelets, in a graduate program. They instructed us to create a bracelet with the words “Black Lives Matter” spelled out in beads. I refused to make a bracelet.
I am aware that these anecdotes are rather drab and boring. There are no amazing gunshots, no scantily clad men bearing assault rifles, and no black-robed Social Justice Warriors. What exists in the real-world, however, is the daily and subtle affront to the free expression of ideas.
I don’t feel the need to defend the necessity of free expression here as it most obviously plays a vital role in maintaining a growing and effective society. What I can tell you is that I had professors yell at me for little more than pointing out a contradiction, lecture halls cluck their tongues at me for merely suggesting we consider a conservative opinion, and , throughout my entire graduate program, I was accused of being a white supremacist for little more than the three stories above.
In fifteen months working towards my master’s degree, I wish I could tell you I stood up for myself more than these three times. I wish I rose my hand every time I disagreed, but I just didn’t. Well, it wasn’t that I just didn’t, because my palms sweated and my head itched every time it was my turn to talk. More times than not, when eyes were on me, I lied. I lied because there was too much shaming if I spoke the truth.
It doesn’t take laws to silence speech. All it takes is for those opposing free speech to “never stop resisting.”
Photo Credit: Victorgrigas