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What Use is Free Speech If Nobody Listens?

By Dr. Carol Panetta

I was perusing a recent copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education over lunch, as I often do, and I stumbled on Jason Stanley’s article, “The Free Speech Fallacy.”  Stanley is responding to a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that, in criticizing a controversial critique of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, in his view, portrays “left-wing social justice as a threat to free speech.”  According to Stanley, this theme “dates back to the fall, when nationwide campus protests calling for racial justice were represented as threats to free speech.”

Dr. Carol Panetta.jpg
Carol Panetta, Psy.D

As a graduate of Amherst College, where anti-racism protests rocked the campus during the fall wave, I was intrigued by the debate.  When is it right to tell someone not to say something that is offensive?  Stanley asks, “If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things?  I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight.  Was I challenging her freedom of speech?”

On the flip side, many of us have experienced the feeling of political correctness inhibiting free speech.  Is it really anti-Semitic to challenge an Israeli policy that doesn’t seem right?  How should whites talk about racism, given their privilege?  The phenomenon of political correctness does give me pause before I speak.

But so what? 

Pausing before speaking is a really good thing.  People need that pause in order to do something that seems to be completely lacking from the current dialogue about free speech.  They need to listen.

I don’t believe we are actually in a crisis of free speech.  We are free to say whatever we please – and we do – just look at the race for President.  But we are in a crisis of listening.

Free speech is useless if nobody is listening.  Free speech means actively hearing another point of view, trying to understand it, and responding with other ideas to add to the conversation in a way that the other person can listen to you.  What is the point of talking, if nobody can hear you?  Do we really achieve freedom by talking like trees in the proverbial empty forest?  Protests are important because they can signal what is not being heard.  They say, “There is a tree falling in the forest – please come into the woods and hear it!”

But hearing can be a challenge.  The woods can be dark and scary.  Nevertheless, in order for free speech actually to contribute to freedom, we need to reintroduce active listening into our discourse.  From my vantage point (though I am not on campus), leaders at Amherst College understood the need to listen to campus protesters, and perhaps even more surprising, they were able to make themselves heard as well.  According to President Biddy Martin, “The issues raised during the protests reflect the existence of barriers that stand in the way of success and wellbeing for too many of our students.”  (She listened.) “Those who took part in the recent protests and formulated the demands that got so much press also came together and, with reflection, rethought their initial list and their rhetoric and crafted a more constructive set of goals.”  (They listened.)  “[Creating] an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries… requires humility about our imperfections as individuals and the inevitable imperfections of human institutions.”  I include this latter quote because being heard does require humility, not just the right to free speech.  It requires talking and listening in such a way that recognizes that everyone has something valuable to say.

So, while Jason Stanley is right to rail against “arguments that place freedom of speech in opposition to social justice,” those very arguments mean that nobody, on either side, is being heard.  On the graduate school campus where I work, we teach counselors and psychoanalysts to “listen with a third ear,” a term coined by psychoanalyst Theodor Reik to describe listening not just to words, but to the complex layers of experience that words evoke.  But listening is not just for therapists.  Listening to speech, understanding its subtext, talking reflectively in return, reaching a common truth, and deciding on constructive action – these are basic necessities for freedom.  Without them, we squander and disrespect our deeply cherished right to speak freely, and in turn, we cannot achieve social justice.

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