A View From Across The Pond: Millennials And Free Speech

By David Malcolm

One of the biggest issues concerning free speech is how to deal with extremist views. Where do you draw the line, if you draw it at all? Do you allow people who preach religious intolerance or Holocaust denial the same right to free speech as some giving a lecture on climate change? Can hate speech be considered free speech?

The recent speech of Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, at the University of Florida has brought up the issue of free speech and university campuses. It is extremely easy to point at students protesting and claim that millennials are trying to shut down free speech. Right-wing media loves to claim that universities and their ‘safe spaces’ are evidence of the younger generation’s over-sensitive nature. Political correctness has gone mad! Diversity is shutting down free speech!

I myself can technically call myself part of the ‘millennial’ generation though the term is unclear. Regardless, it always frustrates me when I see articles claiming that we’re against free speech or that we’re lazy. It always seems that the young kids today are doing everything wrong. Maybe it’s because we lack the advantages our parents had or maybe it’s the way society has shifted. For all I know, the generalized claims are true and we are feckless, lazy and anti-democratic.

As always though, I prefer to consider the other side of the argument and question the sweeping claims made. Believe it or not, there is a reason for why millennials are wary of free speech.

Universities are stuck between the philosophical rock and a hard place. They want to promote free speech while acknowledging the right to protest. The university’s president, Kent Fuchs, had hoped that the best middle ground was to encourage students not to attend. After all, everyone is free to speak but they’re entitled to be ignored.

The fact is, on both sides of the pond, there is a fundamental clash of cultures. The older generation wishes to ensure free speech while the younger generation is quick to take offense and, interestingly, more anxious to avoid giving it. Young students are generally not hysterical snowflakes but appear more thoughtful and earnest of the feelings of others. They shy away from even inadvertent prejudice. It might well be political correctness gone mad, but surely being thoughtful of others is a worthy trait to have. It’s better than alt-right figures shouting “F*** your feelings!” at people who disagree with them. The former indicates a willingness to listen to the concerns of others.

The real crux of this unwillingness to embrace free speech is fairly ironic: social media. While it has been used as a force for good, it has sadly given the loud and obnoxious megaphones to amplify their voices. Bullying, intimidation, and tribalism run rampant on message boards, comments sections and social outlets. Dealing with the hundreds of toxic episodes of Facebook bullying and Twitter pile-ons from people who should know better is exhausting for adults to handle. Teenagers, with their fragile self-esteem and a need to belong, are even more overwhelmed. I know I was, and still am, overwhelmed by the bile that social media produces.

Seen in this light, calls to regulate free speech on the internet makes more sense, especially coming from women, ethnic minorities or the LGBT community. These are people who are often on the sharp end of this outpouring of bile and hatred. Often, the behavior that needs regulating comes from men bullying these groups. Meanwhile, the ones who call for free speech are often members of the alt-right who proclaim themselves sickened by political correctness restricting speech while they intimidate others and shout down different opinions.

That’s not to say the far-left aren’t guilty of the same sort of tactics because they are. That said, those who thrive on political extremes are often those who cry for free speech and yet take steps to see it restricted. Shutting down opinions means demeaning the opposition and painting them as the ‘other’, presenting their arguments as straw men to take down. Millenials get maligned for supporting regulations that prevent them getting shouted down by people who shout them down for being against free speech.

The keyword for millennials in this new generational shift is ‘insecurity’. They have entered a world where the bullies came out on top. The UK saw the careful predictions and factual analysis lost out over racially charged posters and lies painted on the sides of buses. Hilary Clinton, for all her flaws, out-debated her opponent three times with facts and yet now a sexual predator and spoiled child runs the country. It’s hard to teach the power of righteous argument to children who saw evil triumph without it.

The biggest issue for the older generation is that students don’t view free speech the same way they do. They scoff at the ‘safe spaces’ and denounce children as lazy or stupid. Such tactics are themselves thoughtless if the older generation wishes to convince the new generation of the benefits of free speech. Censorship is dangerous and will hurt universities in the long run, but students need to be convinced by understanding, not insults.

There are plenty of benefits to social media and free speech. Dissidents in authoritarian regimes and those using the hashtag #MeToo are examples of social media as a force for good. It allows connections between people from different cultures and backgrounds, providing platforms for discussion and helping friendships overcome barriers. Personal stories of hardship overcome or how policies can affect decent people get shared around the world. Young people should be made aware of the good that free speech can provide and what matters is the person using it.

Rather than mock safe spaces, maybe adults should ask why young people suddenly feel unsafe. They need to show that censorship can be just as dangerously abused and that blocking arguments you don’t like doesn’t make them go away. It’s entirely likely that most students agree the free speech is important but feel unconvinced by recent events or that no one will listen to millennials because of the generalizations I describe above.

Universities and colleges are not against free speech. Neither are millennials but they are tired of being considered the enemy of free speech. So mock them at your peril. Doing so simply shows that they are right to be afraid and that you have learned nothing from their fears.

I'm a historian based in the UK who likes jumping from one thought to next. I love to learn new things and explore other ideas.

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