In the past few decades, there has been much debate over the role that free speech assumes in the lives of Americans. This debate has been especially prevalent with regards to the issue of freedom of speech on college campuses. From safe spaces, to microaggressions, to trigger warnings, a large vocabulary has developed around the issue of free speech on college campuses. These words have been accompanied by much discussion about the extent to which free speech should be allowed on campus to avoid the “harming” of other students.
Colleges are intended to be hubs of learning and growth during a student’s life, a place where they can discover their own identities and test their beliefs and theories on the world through vigorous examination and discussion. However, recent restrictions on free speech have been suppressing this vital component of college campuses to the point where disagreement is looked at as bigotry, harmful, or backwards. Everyone is entitled to his or her own differences of opinion and is more than free to voice these differences, both verbally and written. However, when you create “safe spaces” and other concepts that hinder one’s ability to exercise this right, you are undoubtedly depriving that person of their right of free speech, the first of our founding father’s amendments and arguably the foundation of the constitution. These terms that are meant to make others feel more comfortable and safe are sheltering students from the realities of life and are creating unrealistic expectations for them as they enter the workplace. The notion that, “Since something makes me uncomfortable because it conflicts with my beliefs (or the beliefs of others which I readily came to accept without any thought), therefore you should change it” is flawed in nearly every regard and the antithesis of what makes America a prospering nation. It is these discomforting notions that test students’ beliefs and lead them to intellectual growth. Without discomfort, there can be no room for growth. That is a standard which Americans cannot willingly accept as a nation.
So how do we solve this problem? For one thing, we need to do a better job of making students realize that there is no absolute answer when it comes to matters of opinion, and that each student is entitled to a different opinion. American students are so used to being taught that problems only have one “right” answer and this notion often carries over into the realm of social problems as well. We come to accept that our beliefs must be right, and if others conflict with those beliefs they are wrong. Rather than forcing students to re-examine their beliefs and the premises that they rest on, this way of thinking pushes them to create environments where uncomfortable situations and thoughts are eliminated altogether. Students become disconcerted with ambiguity and the idea that both sides may have valid theories that conflict with each other. Students need these unsettling ideas presented to them in college because it is part of their growth into citizenship and adulthood. These discomfiting conversations provide them a place to develop their own ideas through open discussion. If one eliminates this aspect of college, the potential for growth and independence are also eliminated. Only through the open discussion of uncomfortable topics and conflicting ideas can we reach common round and grow to respect each other as human beings.
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