Speech Freedoms Need “Bad” Opinions

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True dialogue means occasionaly exposing oneself and others to uncivil, crass speech

An issue may have two defensible positions. Alternatively, the consensus on a particular issue seems so strongly unanimous that any opposing stance can only be impossible.
This second scenario is potentially dangerous.

It becomes dangerous when a unanimous sentiment — working only on precisely that: sentiment — becomes a rationale for curbing speech freedoms. Censorship, even in the noble causes of tolerance and peace, will be just as unfair and unwarranted as any other act of censorship if knee-jerk sentimentalism and emotional mania replace level-headed analysis and reason.

This week, two writers made cases for two very different issues that had one thing in common: they seemed, on its face, to have only one right answer.

In the case of a Catholic university in Ohio that lumped homosexuality with murder and rape on the description for a class analyzing socially deviant behavior, there seemed to be a uniquely right answer from a social justice standpoint: drop any mention of the LGBTQ community as deviant. Or drop the class. Or drop the accreditation for the school’s social work program (this was being considered, according to press reports).

But it can be easy to forget, as one contributor writes, that San Francisco is something of a “bubble of tolerance.” Zeal aside, there happens to be another side to this issue: an academically sound definition of deviance differs from the popular understanding of the word. Those who identify as LGBTQ are still a minority, and the deviance label, in the academic sense “is not a value judgment, but simply a sociological fact in the context of a course description.”

A more violent case this week involves the trailer — not even the release — of a decidedly degrading, uninformed, and shameless film about the life of Muhammad produced by Americans. The video was so offensive to Muslim sensibilities that deadly film riots sprang (and at publication time, continue to spring) in the Middle East, resulting in the high-profile deaths of 4 Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Many Americans, and certainly many Muslims around the world, would not object to the erasure, ban, or removal of the trailer, let alone the film itself. From a standpoint of diplomacy, religious empathy, and simple decency, denouncing and banning offensive material like this would be the right thing to do.

But denouncing is not the same as self-censorship. The offensive and valueless (and national security- threatening) ramblings of a few misguided individuals is a price to be paid for precious speech freedoms.

True dialogue occasionally means exposing oneself and others to unsavory, tedious, uncivil, and even dangerous opinions. Anything less is equivalent to lack of trust in people’s ability to decide for themselves what positions are valid and which ones are moot.

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