The Joys and Perils of Free Speech, Is It Really Worth It?

Authenticity cultural competency cultural sensitivity Education Education Ghana Freedom of Speech Political Correctness

More than 20 years ago I entered University of Ghana as a premed student in the Faculty of Science. The opportunity to start my college experience on the University Campus in Legon enabled me 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 independence of thought and leadership among its students. It is difficult to determine if this reputation is well earned or if this was just a myth propagated by students drunk on their own cult of self importance. Many considered students from this hall as just plan rude and in many situations it would be a challenge to dispute such a charges.

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 of us to answer this question.

Do We Benefit From Harming Those We Disagree With Ideologically?

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. I believe that it is very healthy to hear and listen to ideas and arguments that run counter to mine. We all learn a lot from talking to those that we disagree with. I must admit though that I have been in and narrowly escaped many 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 believe his words then we lose a significant human skill and curtail our experience by limiting ourselves to likeminded individuals. We may all be losing the skills needed to listen to speech or thoughts that appear to cut 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.

This post is dedicated 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 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. I believe 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.

How Do We Listen With Respect and Learn From Our Opponents?

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 need to learn to listen more without feeling locked into our cultural or ideological positions.
  2. Understand that our beliefs and ideas do not define us; we must allow our experience to define our path.
  3. Feel free to give ourselves the permission to drop beliefs and ideas that no longer hold true for us
  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 all these fights are debates are part of a well crafted 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


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan