Freedom of speech has once again become a hot-button issue. Initially taking place last fall, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests have rekindled the ire of many, including President Donald Trump.
Not only did Trump call for kneeling NFL players to be fired, but, most notably, he labeled protesters “sons of bitches.” Especially following the ongoing Jemele Hill controversy, this incident has sparked a fresh war over free speech.
The battlefield, more often than not, has been our Facebook feeds and Twitter TLs. In a world of alternative facts and political echo chambers, navigating the world of personal opinion and public persona has become more sticky than ever.
Syracuse University London hosted a symposium Tuesday night called “The Political is Personal: Speaking the Truth in the Post-Truth Age.” Facilitated by Troy Gordon, director of SU London, the panel consisted of presentations from three SU London professors and discussion among students and faculty.
Beforehand, I asked a few of my peers what free speech means to them. Hope Meltser, who is a graphic design and selected studies in education major, said free speech is the ability and option to say anything you want.
“But any reasonable organization is going to put some things onto that,” Meltser added. “Because some things just shouldn’t be said.”
Mackenzie Ryan, a political science major, said free speech is ability to say however you feel.
“In recent times, there’s been a lot of debate over the boundaries of what you can and cannot say with free speech. Personally, I don’t really know where I stand on that. But a lot of times, I feel like some organizations are taking it too far,” Ryan explained.
“I think where that line can be drawn is if they have done any physical harm to somebody in the past. They should not have the same free speech rights as others.”
And lastly, Jillian Carrafa, who studies television, radio and film at SU, said free speech means you can voice your opinions without fear of government censorship.
“Free speech is not the end-all, be-all. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can say whatever you want without being afraid of anything. I mean, you still have to deal with your community, with your job,” Carrafa said. “But really, all freedom of speech is is the guarantee you won’t be put in jail for having convictions.”
Examining British free speech controversies
The English have been discussing Kaepernick and the NFL. As merely the country across the pond, England has always had something to say each time America’s debate on free speech bubbles back up to the surface. But England has had many a free speech controversy of its own.
Dan Wheatley, an SU London professor, illuminated foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s recent comments about the Libyan city of Sirte. Johnson explained how he knew of some British developers who have “a brilliant vision” for the city.
“The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they’ll be there,” Johnson said. Representatives from all parties are calling for Johnson to lose his job.
Peter Tatchell is another British figure who has landed in hot water for how he exercises his free speech. The gay rights activist has been condemned as transphobic and racist by other LGBT activists in the U.K.
While these folks seem to bear the stain of not being woke enough, Wheatley explained that some older British people feel as if they are now being forced to walk on eggshells. The golden of age of free speech in the U.K. has gone, they say.
Wheatley pointed to how comedians like Bernard Manning captured the heart of the mainstream U.K. with his racist, misogynistic and homophobic jokes. Another British comedian popular for the same sense of humor is Jim Davidson.
The British lesbian activists, for example, who protested Margaret Thatcher’s anti-LGBT legislation in the 1980s were not afforded the same pass. And yet the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s supposedly comprised the golden era of free speech.
Building and deconstructing safe spaces
This attitude reflects a similar one held by American adults of all ages, wherein liberal snowflakes are to blame for chilling free speech these days. When it comes to building safe spaces, Kate Hammer, an SU London professor, said we should think of them more as scaffoldings: open structured networks of support.
Shortly following Brexit, Hammer has focused her civic engagement on the #NoDust movement. The idea is to not “let the dust settle” on Brexit.
Hammer posted an open letter to Parliament last year exploring the questions of “constitutional crisis” Brexit raised for Brits. The relationships she formed from this culminated in a #NoDust conference. Writers, philosophers, scientists, entrepreneurs, poets, photographers and all-around creatives came together in London to speak their minds on Brexit.
While free speech isn’t as “enshrined” as it is in the U.S., those living in the U.K. do have a fair amount of protections. Articles 18, 19 and 20 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are all about upholding citizens’ freedoms of thought, belief, opinion, expression, assembly and association.
So it’s not as if those thinkers and artists at the #NoDust panel were legally prohibited from speaking their minds. But as is the case with any self-expression and ideology, there has to be a level of understanding and respect established before people feel comfortable speaking their minds.
To create this sense of comfort, symposium-goers participated in an anonymous survey about free speech via Kahoot!. The organizers posed questions such as “Is free speech a privilege or a right?” and asked whether online speech should be more regulated than ordinary speech.
Over the course of the evening, students grew more comfortable with each other. And even the anonymity of the “anonymous questions” was blown open by their askers to create more transparency between participants in the symposium.
Navigating free speech within different communities
In moments like these, students were able to cross a few of the chasms that the realities of a “post-truth” society has widened. SU London Professor Nina Trivedi discussed how the term “post-truth,” which pertains to an emphasis on emotional appeals over objective facts, became so pervasive it won Oxford Dictionary’s coveted “Word of the Year” title.
As a visual culture theorist, Trivedi also outlined how Pepe the Frog memes have been subverted for the alt-right and how the imagery of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 ads was repurposed for Trump’s “Make America Great Campaign.”
In teasing out left vs. right dynamics, the room came to a consensus that certain demographics were underrepresented in the room. White men and conservatives were missing from the group of about 30 students.
Some students theorized that, whether or not this was truly the case, there was something about social justice discussions and the hegemony of the left at SU that was off-putting to these groups. That maybe intolerance and shutting down conversations were givens for the event.
At the beginning of the symposium, Gordon revealed to us the two groups who have approached him most often about experiencing a chilling effect on their free speech: students of color and Republicans. What does that tell you about Syracuse University’s (and by extension, SU London’s) left-leaning student body?
An understanding how identity plays into ideology is what informed the symposium’s name of “The Political is Personal.” Just as early feminist groups championed to the idea that “the personal is political,” we now hold so tightly to our deeply personal, political beliefs. In a world that is “post-truth,” where attempts to educate ideological opponents will surely backfire, where we are stuck in our party bubbles, how will we ever see growth?
There isn’t an easy answer for this dilemma. There is, however, a commitment we can make to having hard conversations with others, even when it doesn’t feel particularly gratifying. It’s about creating a spaces or platform where people, especially those that think differently from you, feel comfortable speaking their unfiltered mind.