The Joys and Perils of Free Speech, is it really worth it?

More than 20 years ago I entered University of Ghana as a preme student in the Faculty of Science. One important thing about having the opportunity to spend time on the University Campus rather than starting right out in the medical school in Accra was the opportunity afforded us to interact with students pursuing other courses of study.  I was fortunate and ended in the hall of my choice Commonwealth Hall. This dorm had earned itself the reputation of inculcating independent thought and leadership among its students. It is not easy to determine if this reputation is well earned or if this was just a myth propagated by students drunk on the cult of their own self importance. Some just considered students from this hall just plan rude and in many situations it would be a challenge to dispute such a charge.

In United States today, I was reminded of Commonwealth hall when I heard of University of Chicago’s President no safe places speech to his 2020 class. This got me thinking about our current culture of political correctness, as to whether it has improved or made our society worse? This is a question I cannot really answer very well in all honesty but I would try. There is one question that we would need to address to understand the impact of excessive adherence to political correctness.

Is there any value in listening to or hearing ideas or speech that are completely at odds with our own? I would continue by attempting to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone ahead before us to answer this question.

Benjamin Franklin one of our founding fathers wrote “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as Public Liberty without Freedom of Speech” -Benjamin Franklin, The New England Courant, Jul. 9, 1722.

school-of-athens

Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato enshrined free speech as the bed rock of any healthy democracy

Personally I believe that it is very healthy to hear and listen to ideas and arguments that run counter to mine. I have learned a lot from talking to those that I disagree with, but I have had to be careful because I have narrowly escaped some fights on this account. Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931) the Lebanese poet and philosopher once said “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”

Chief Tipsy

The late Martin Tweneboah Koduah (Chief Tipsy) former University of Ghana student who was stabbed after a heated argument.

If we are to believe his words then we lose a significant human skill and curtail our experience when we refuse to interact in a positive manner with those with whom we disagree. We may all be losing the skills needed to listen to speech or thoughts that may appear to be cutting through the fabric of who we are without lashing out at its source. I recently heard that a former student of Commonwealth Hall in University of Ghana had been involved in an argument that ended up with one slashing the throat of the other.

I dedicate this post to the memory of the unfortunate young man affectionately called Chief Tipsy by his colleagues. Yes, even in my so called bastion of free speech where we would sit at at dusk and talk and mostly argue about anything from science, religion to politics is also losing the art of tolerance. Tolerance however is a very human trait and we may be losing it partly due to the fact that today’s interactions  lack some key human elements. Dissenting opinions are not easy to listen to, so in a digital world where it is easy to tune people out by just unfriending them or just deciding not to follow them we avoid people who express dissenting views.

The question that I would like to ask though is, how do we listen with respect without attacking those with whom we disagree.  How do we achieve this safely without broken noses and shedding blood?

  1.  We would need to listen more without feeling locked into our cultural or ideological positions.
  2. We must understand that our beliefs and ideas do not define us; we must allow our experience to define our path.
  3. If we realize that our beliefs and ideas no longer hold true for us we must give ourselves the permission to drop them.
  4. In all things we must understand that our own safety and the safety of our family, friends and colleagues are more important than our ideologies.

Whilst these would not stop us from fighting each other with our words and ideas, I believe my work is done if we can understand that at this is all a very enjoyable game.

By Dr. Leonard Sowah an Internal Medicine Physician in Baltimore, Maryland

Photo Credit

University of Ghana – Commonwealth Hall Photo – Mannsly – Wikipedia contributor

Painting by Raphael – Agora of Athens

Photo of Chief Tipsy – Ghana Web

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