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January 16, 2015

What’s in a name?

It’s easy to rally around a love of free speech when we’re ignoring the fact that there is no agreement on what “free speech” means

Earlier this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and UChicago alumnus Bret Stephens put out an article discussing the state of freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo murders. In his article, Stephens—whose Wikipedia personal life section reads like something just short of Tony Stark’s—opens with a recap of the hoopla that occurred during and after Dan Savage’s visit to our campus last May, and dismisses the student organization QUIP’s response as oversensitive. Stephens moves on to strongly espouse the idea of what he calls “truly free speech,” and closes with his support of the University’s recent statement on its commitment to free inquiry.

Stephens’ voice is just one of many that has spoken up in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. Free speech is the topic of the moment, and the world has exploded in a cacophony of opinions about its existence as a fundamental right of man. And the thing is, at least in the reported news and opinions, the uproar hasn’t really been an argument. Nobody’s saying speech shouldn’t be free. So in response to several people being killed, we’ve elected them as exemplars of an ideal we pretty much all agree upon, and are proceeding to collectively rub one out over how much we agree upon it.

But, besides the obvious problems like saying news is news mostly because it sells we’re all kind of missing a less obvious problem. We all agree that free speech is great, right? So why are there so many problems around it?

Well, because what the hell is free speech?

We all think free speech is great, and so does Bret Stephens, the Pope, and the Maroon Editorial Board, but nobody really agrees on what free speech is. Some think it means the right to say anything to anyone, anytime, anywhere, in whatever shoes; others think it should stop short of criticizing religion, and some think there should be a clear delineation between free speech and hate speech (whatever the hell that is). But really, the truth is we’re all quibbling over the definition of something that’s indefinable, an ideal that lacks the concreteness to actually be idealized. Absolute free speech (that is, being able to say literally whatever you want) does not exist anywhere. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater might have legal repercussions (but the penis game probably won’t), and so might threatening to murder somebody. So, how do we decide what needs to be censored and what needn’t? What should be said and what shouldn’t is almost entirely a subjective matter. Now would be the point where I ask the question, “Who’s qualified to decide what speech is free and allowed, and what speech isn’t?” Except, the answer is rather obvious: None of us are. We all just do it anyway.

Including, it would seem, Bret Stephens. Stephens regards QUIP’s uproar over the t-word as essentially ridiculous, and goes on to sound like something of a cranky old man reviling how the world’s just all gone to shit and we’ll all forget about the right to free speech until someone else dies because of it. Stephens holds up free speech as a grand achievement of modernity, to be treasured and never lost. But Stephens doesn’t seem to recognize or care that what he calls free speech isn’t what others call free speech. He glorifies the committee that recently released UChicago’s newest commitment to free inquiry, even encouraging everyone to send their kids here. But the thing is, it’s not really clear if Stephens and the committee agree at all on what they think free speech is. Stephens, again, endorses “truly free” speech, while the committee says that free speech “does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish” and goes on to qualify exceptions regarding privacy and legality. Oh, but of course. I don’t know if this is what Bret Stephens thinks free speech is, and, well, it’s not really my problem. The point is that it’s nonsensical to agree that something is great when we ignore the fact that we don’t agree what it is.

So what am I really asking for? Up to this point in the article I’ve pretty much been walking around taking dumps in people’s desk drawers without leaving supplies for clean up. What do I, the entirely unqualified straight, white, male college student criticizing a Pulitzer Prize winner, actually want? Do we need to agree on what free speech is before we talk about it? Regardless of whether free speech is allowed, banned, diluted or whatever else, it’s foolish to stand united in support of our own individual definitions of an ideal that none of us truly understand, and people will continue to be hurt regardless of whether we do. Obviously preventing death and violence is a priority, but trying to agree on the definition of free speech? That’s not gonna happen. I guess the best we can do is keep arguing about it in the comment section. Oh, wait, except those are moderated. Whoops.

Liam Leddy is a third-year in the College majoring in Economics.

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