Attending college was one of the most exciting times of my life. My professors challenged the status quo of my beliefs and taught me how to think critically. They were never satisfied with having me simply regurgitate what I had learned. They insisted that I show evidence of having considered the pros and cons of every argument or theory. They showed me the importance of viewing the world from multiple points of view. I remember attending events featuring some of the most controversial speakers of the era. It mattered not whether I agreed with them, but rather that I allow myself to widen my own horizons. Some of those that I heard were brilliant and I wrote others off, but always there was the sheer enjoyment of becoming familiar with new and intriguing philosophies.
When I became a teacher I was enthralled with the idea of showing my students how to become critical thinkers. Even in mathematics classes we compared and contrasted differing methods for solving problems and began to discuss the merits of each. I once prefaced such an exercise by having my students read accounts of a Revolutionary War battle written by four quite different individuals. One was the eyewitness account of a patriot, another was from a letter written by a British soldier. Still another was penned by Winston Churchill for his famous history and the last was from the point of view of a bystander who had little interest in choosing sides. The students immediately realized that how we see the world is influenced by all of the complexities of our lifetime. They began to question who had been in the right and wondered if we ever get a totally unbiased reporting of events. It was quite rewarding to watch the scales fall from their eyes and to experience their enthusiasm in being able to engage in a debate.
I am and always will be a staunch proponent of free speech. Unlike many people that I know, I actually enjoy hearing from individuals whose opinions are diametrically opposed to mine. When in their company I listen with as open a mind as I might possibly muster, realizing that my own thinking is rooted in the totality of my lifetime. My goal is not to catch them in mistakes but to truly learn from them. It is rather amazing how much I derive from even the most ridiculous sounding ideas. I have always felt that we tend to spend too much time composing our responses and not nearly enough attempting to understand why people believe as they do.
Obviously there are many instances in which I am not even minutely swayed by someone’s beliefs, particularly when I sense that they are evil or violent. I have read Mein Kampf not because I am a follower of Nazi propaganda, but because I think it is important to know what lies in the minds of such people. Perhaps the biggest mistake that too many make is running away from the rants of those who would impinge on our freedoms. In truth we should make ourselves aware of even their most rancid and unbearable thinking. I agree with the Godfather that it is important to keep our enemies close.
I abhor censorship of any kind. Free speech is perhaps our most important right as citizens. When I write my blog each weekday I am fully aware that I will annoy or even anger some who read my words, but I will fight to the death for my right to state what I believe. I will do the same for anyone else, even those with whom I totally disagree. The hallmark of totalitarianism is the tendency to eliminate the written or spoken words of those voicing alternative points of view. A free nation insures free expression of ideas in all phases of society. If someone urinates on a cross and calls it art I may choose to disagree and even feel offended, but I will never insist that the offering be destroyed.
I am somewhat befuddled by the current trend to shut down free speech at universities that were once bastions of open expression. I don’t personally like Ann Coulter but I have no problem with having her speak on the campus of any college including my alma mater. I don’t have to attend the event and I certainly don’t have to agree with anything that she says. What I should insist on is that she have her opportunity to speak her mind without interference. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but her words will never hurt me. In fact, I suspect that her audience would be rather small if not for all of the unearned publicity that she gets each time a group of students threaten violence if she shows up to give a speech.
The history of the world is filled with instances of book burnings and executions of people whose thoughts and words seemed controversial. The Spanish Inquisition was a dark time of squelching ideas. Members of ISIL destroy anyone and anything that is offensive to them. Surely the examples of Nazi and Communist oppression should teach us that it is in an open society that we progress as humans, not one in which we refuse to allow alternative points of view. Unfortunately I fear that we are presently on a razor thin line between wanting to be inoffensive and becoming unthinking censors. It is my love of liberty that tells me that we must be very careful in protecting our rights as free men and women. All of us should be loudly complaining any time that there are attempts to silence any among us, regardless of whether we agree with that individual’s beliefs or not.
With regards to what I am presently witnessing I am reminded of the now famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
Speak out loudly and clearly. Let no one take away the free speech of any among us.