The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday December 7th

Column: I attended a forum on free speech so you don't have to.

Graphic by Gillian Faski.
Buy Photos Graphic by Gillian Faski.

Editor's Note: This article is satire.

College students love free stuff, so the room was full for the Program for Public Discourse’s panel on free speech. 

The panel consisted of four students and a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School moderating. They tackled questions on campus culture, professors' political leanings and the all-important Marketplace of Ideas. The evening concluded with questions from the audience.

The panel was held in conjunction with a study conducted by researchers in the UNC System focused on “free expression and constructive dialogue” on the campuses of several schools in the system.

I sat through what seemed like a fruitful conversation on free expression. I don’t know if I understood all of it, but the following are some things I learned:

Always agree. 

The panelists modeled a respectful discussion. But while they were talking, I thought of a way to sidestep this whole business. Say yes and walk away.

You feel your stomach turn, a tingling sensation in your fingers and toes. Someone is telling you their opinion, but you are struck with the awkward realization that a disagreement might be on its way. 

Get outta there.

You will not be able to reason with someone else – on anything. Only you can prevent tense moments with casual acquaintances.

Sometimes, if you are in a discussion that you definitely cannot leave, here’s an emergency fix. Say “I completely agree,” then state an opinion contrary to theirs. They will be so high on agreement that they will not notice.

To decide how to proceed, ask yourself: Are my foundational beliefs worth this moment of interpersonal discomfort? They almost never are.

I have the right to be liked. 

The study found that most students feel that professors offer a healthy learning environment. That has been my experience. I raise my hand at every question, and I ask my professors “How was your weekend, Professor?” every day before class. They seem to like me.

It is the moment I leave the classroom that I face my gravest threats. Sometimes, as I walk around campus, fellow students do not make eye contact with me. They are conspiratorially looking at their phones. Or when they do, it is not extended eye contact, so I cannot tell if it is a look of respect or disdain.

When I ask whether they are curtailing my right to be roundly admired, they say “I’m on a call” or “I’m late to class” or “No.”

I wanted to ask about this phenomenon at the panel, but to reach the microphone, I would have had to ask someone beside me to move, and I was scared they would be annoyed at me.

The research taught me a new term: self-censorship.

I am a victim of self-censorship. As far as I can figure out, it occurs when I think of something I don’t say, usually because I can feel it would not go over well. How had I navigated life without knowing this threat to my own well-being that trails me every second? I feel the specter of self-silencing, self-expulsion — even self-cancellation — lurking in all my waking moments. 

I am a captive of my own mind: my own cancelable thoughts and my own canceling conscience. My soul is a battlefield. I face the real and growing threat of my consciousness being ripped from my own body as I revolt against what I have to say, I myself imposing Draconian measures on the extent of my own free speech.

Self-censorship is not just a label attached to the healthy act of suppressing a half-baked argument. It is not a misnomer for restraint or academic cowardice. It is my only remaining recourse against my greatest enemy: me.

We need to be able to reconcile our differences amicably. 

When all other tactics fail, we must rely on our common humanity. If I disagree with you politically, we should be able to go get a drink afterward or watch the big game together. Or we could go to lunch or get a quick coffee if you don’t have much time. Actually, why don’t you choose? I’m free most days, all day. Please, just once. I’ll pay. I’m so lonely.


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