by Dan Ward
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
When and why did that rhyme I learned as a child warp into “sticks and stones should break the bones of those whose words might hurt me?”
A new study by The Brookings Institution shows that of 1,500 college students surveyed nationwide, an astounding 19 percent believe that violence – physical violence – is an appropriate response to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking. Let that sink in. One in five attending college in a country that is in many ways defined by its protection of speech believe that mere words should be met, and stopped, with violence.
A majority believe it is appropriate to stop hateful speech by shouting it down so the speaker cannot be heard, and a plurality believe that hate speech is NOT protected by the First Amendment.
How did we reach a point at which young people believe the response to speech with which they disagree is to force it to stop, with violence if necessary?
One of the things taught to me as a child, and reinforced in college, was that First Amendment protections are not extended only to those with “acceptable” viewpoints, but more importantly to those with whom we strongly disagree.
I realize times have changed and we live in a charged political environment, but I remember the conversations I had with friends and family as a young man, conversations in which we discussed the need to protect hateful speech, because doing so defines who we are and what makes us different. Our willingness to tolerate hateful, horrible words is what sets us apart. I can only hope we find our way back to having those kinds of conversations.
As communicators, it is our job to protect and preserve First Amendment rights, and to ensure that the next generation understands these rights. As a father, I want my children to be confronted with ideas and language they find disagreeable and even hurtful. I want them to seek out this language. And I want them to respond not with violence or shouts, but with better arguments.
The way to confront hateful speech is not sticks and stones. We can only defeat hateful speech with reason, with conversation, with more speech.