In Defense of the Offensive
A version of this piece was published as OP-ED in AUB’s Outlook newspaper on October 11.
Ideas matter. Exposing ourselves to ideas that challenge our own is an important and crucial part of our college education. It is thus imperative, as students especially, to fight for the freedom of speech, as it is necessary for our exposure to these ideas.
Freedom of speech was under attack at AUB last week when the Insight Club launched its Weigh Your Words campaign. According to this student club, “freedom of speech does not equal offending others”; you are not free to articulate your opinion if it clashes with someone else’s beliefs.
So, what if I claim that I am offended by this whole campaign and its support of censoring speech? It strikes at the core of one of my beliefs. Where does this leave me and anyone who shares this viewpoint?
I write these words in an attempt to genuinely address students in the Insight Club before anyone else. I ask you as my fellow students: who exactly decides what is ‘offensive’ (a subjective concept)? Is it any individual who ‘takes offence’? Is it a majority (half plus one) of individuals in a society? Who exactly do you trust to decide if speech is or is not offensive? If you ask me, I would not hand over this power (the power to decide) to anyone. History shows us that anyone given this kind of authority will abuse it for their benefit (by silencing dissent).
I am troubled because you are AUB students receiving a very important idea, it seems to me, only at face value. Freedom of speech was not fought for and won over as a right to protect speech that the majority of individuals in society agree with. It was instituted to protect those who disagree and to protect their right to offend in their disagreement. Otherwise, what use is there for it?
I believe that you are doing a disservice to yourselves whenever you tune out someone you disagree with before hearing them out. You deny yourselves, before anyone else, the opportunity to hear something. Especially at university, your opportunity to be exposed is as crucial as the right of others to voice their opinions. It gives you the chance to think about how you know what you know.
Furthermore, the person using speech you consider offensive is someone whose voice, especially, should be protected. This person must have taken some time to come up with what they are saying, and it might even contain some reason. At the end of the day, what will happen if you allow yourself to be exposed to ideas without any limits? At worst, you will hear something that does not hold up to reason, and this will only reaffirm your beliefs and refine your arguments. At best, you will be introduced to an idea that may change your whole outlook on life. And that’s worth the risk, isn’t it?