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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    GUEST COMMENTARY: Trashing free expression

    Courtesy Alexander Schaefer

    I love littering. Rolling down the window and tossing out empty cans, receipts, or maybe even some cigarette butts — what a fast and thrilling way to tidy up my car! Dumping my debris onto the street satisfies my desires immediately, easily, costlessly… well, costlessly at least for me.

    But here’s something I don’t love: other people littering. A broken bottle in the bike lane can really deflate my morning commute. Ideally, no one would litter… well, except for me.

    Another thing I love is confirmation of my own opinions — especially political ones. I like spaces where I’m free to express my views and listen to others express those same views.

    But what I really don’t like is when I, or speakers that I agree with, face obstruction when attempting to express beliefs and opinions. Ideally, no one would be allowed to block the free expression of ideas… well, except for people whose opinions are the same as mine.

    Clearly, something has gone awry in this line of reasoning. Ignore the massive benefits of engaging with diverse and opposing viewpoints, and focus instead on the illicit double-standard employed. Almost everyone enjoys the freedom to express themselves. We also enjoy the confirmation of our opinions.

    Yet, certain viewpoints or expressions offend us, and even if not offensive, opposing viewpoints cause feelings of discomfort. There is, then, an ever-present urge to apply a double-standard, to stifle opposition while retaining our own freedom to express our point of view.

    This particular urge has become rampant on college campuses — including at the University of Arizona, where protesters have attempted to block speakers on both the left and right. In fact, they have succeeded in doing so on multiple occasions.

    Despite the temptation, there are serious problems with acting on this urge, problems with — as the analogy to littering will illuminate — practical and moral consequences.

    Practically, limiting the rights of others to express their viewpoints will likely lead to restrictions of your own right to free expression. When I see others littering, this signals that littering is acceptable, at least around here.

    Who wants to be the only person following the alleged rules when no one else seems to think they’re important? Indeed, field studies and laboratory experiments have revealed that rules achieve compliance only when individuals believe others are following them. Seeing others openly violate a rule leads one to question if it really is a rule after all.

    Consider the right to free expression as a rule: when we silence opposing viewpoints others come to believe it is acceptable to silence ours. The rule of tolerance is undermined by the very act of ignoring it. As one group ceases to tolerate opposing viewpoints, so do others. Free expression on college campuses withers under pressure from all sides.

    The list of disinvited campus speakers includes, for example, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, but also Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore. If I dump my trash on the street, I’d better be prepared for others to do the same.

    Suppose, however, that I could litter with impunity. Maybe I’m the town sheriff, and nobody else can hold me accountable for my actions. In this situation, the practical issue of others mimicking my intolerance is assumed away, but a moral problem remains.

    When deliberating about rules, a basic moral requirement is that the rule be fair — in other words, you could endorse the rule regardless of your particular situation. A rule that allows me and only me to litter is unfair.

    Even if I could advocate such a rule from my current perspective, it’s difficult to believe that if I awoke tomorrow as, say, the town dentist instead of the sheriff, that I would still have a good reason to continue endorsing this rule.

    To make and enforce unfair rules — even if I, the sheriff, can get away with it — is an abuse of power. This principle clearly extends to free expression. If one finds themselves in a position to cleanse their environment of opposing or offensive viewpoints, and only those viewpoints, it’s wrong to do so — even if one possesses (for the time being) the requisite power.

    Yet, those who advocate for speech restrictions and who protest with the goal of silencing opposition often maintain the moral rightness of their cause. According to these restrictionists, they know what’s right and true, and there is nothing wrong with silencing wrong and evil viewpoints.

    The drawbacks of this worldview become glaring as soon as we note that those holding it frequently disagree with one another on other matters.

    Behold: social justice warriors certain that pro-life conservatives seek nothing more than to strip women of their right to self-ownership, evangelical Christians certain that pro-choice advocates relish nothing more than the cold-blooded murder of innocent infants.

    The upshot is that, however certain you are that you fight on the side of truth and decency, your opposition is often just as certain. This does not mean that you are mistaken or unjustified in your personal beliefs. But it does mean that attempting to silence opponents on the grounds that they’re wrong raises the same practical and moral issues discussed above.

    If you strive to silence them, they will likely strive to silence you. And even if you can get away with it, we must ask: isn’t there something problematic about asserting your own right to express your vision of the true and the good, while denying others that same right?

    If you answered “no,” don’t be surprised to find piles of wrappers and banana peels in your favorite spaces. And don’t be surprised to realize that you deserve it.

    Alexander Schaefer is a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

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