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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Case for Freedom of Speech and Civil Discourse

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

I was the child who stayed up well past my bedtime devouring novels by flashlight under the covers. My love for language blossomed early on, and as an honest love does, it has helped me grow into a more thoughtful and well-rounded person. It has empowered me to own my voice, enabled me to be more compassionate, and encouraged me to question. When my imagination barreled forth like a freight train, it gave me the tools to capture its tracks on paper. When I felt powerless or confused as a child, it helped me make sense of the world by creating my own. I came to admire language and all its capacities to connect us to each other, and to root us in our identities. 

The infinite power of language and the freedom it provides are wondrous and beautiful things for a child who is coming to understand the meaning of personhood and the nuances of reality. However, as we grow older, and wiser, and sometimes more cynical, we begin to confront the realities of this power in troubling ways. We learn that language is not just a mechanism for human connection, but that it can be a tool for manipulation and coercion. Yes, it can heal, and inspire, and embolden us to become better versions of ourselves, but it can also degrade, oppress, and abuse on both an individual and collective scale.

Our speech carries the potential to shake the world we inhabit for better or worse, and that is why it is so essential that we bring respect and intentionality into our communal discourse; for not only are we creators and creations of language, but we are wired for connection. In an age where terms like “fake news” and “post-truth society” have permeated our lexicon, we have become dangerously disconnected from one another and have chosen to build barriers rather than reach across boundaries. Our political climate has grown fraught with hostility, and we have heard caustic speech reverberate on a national scale. Civil discourse in this country is not an optional supplement or a frivolous alternative to such destructive language; it is an urgent need and an utter necessity.

Now more than ever, as our country faces political polarization and ideological divide, it is crucial that we investigate the defining elements of productive conversation and healthy dialogue. We must critically inspect dominant narratives that seek to silence the voices of the marginalized, and we must speak up with dignity in the face of injustice. When we weaponize language and proliferate hate speech, our common life suffers. However, by listening generously and speaking courageously, we not only allow ourselves to enter into more edifying personal relationships, but we also begin to make more substantive contributions to the public sphere. It is this conviction that gives me hope for my generation’s future, and that inspired me to become a Hackworth Fellow.

Sep 28, 2017

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