The case for free speech and courage

Best-selling author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes the case for free speech and courage. Below is a brief excerpt.

… The biggest threat to speech today is not legal or political, but social. This is not a new idea, even if its present manifestation is modern. That famed chronicler of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, believed that the greatest dangers to liberty were not legal or political, but social. And when John Stuart Mill warned against the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling,” it reads as though he foresaw the threat that orthodoxy poses today. The solution to this threat can only be collective action. Social censure creates not just a climate of fear but also a reluctance to acknowledge this fear. It is only human to fear a mob, but I would fear less if I knew my neighbor would not stay silent were I to be pilloried. We fear the mob but the mob is us. 

I want to make a case today for moral courage, for each of us to stand for freedom of speech, to refuse to participate in unjustified censorship, and to make much wider, the boundaries of what can be said. We must start again to assume good faith. In public discourse today, the assumption of good faith is dead and speech is by default interpreted in the most uncharitable way. Yes, some people are not of good faith which, I suppose, is what that modern word “troll” means, but we cannot, because some people do not act in good faith, then decide that the principle of good faith itself is dead. It is instructive to be reminded of American President James Madison’s words: “some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything.” 

We must start again to make our case, respectfully and factually. We must agree that neither sanctimonious condescension on the left nor mean-spirited hectoring on the right qualify as political arguments. We must insist not only on truth but also nuance. An argument for any social justice movement, for example, is stronger and more confident when it is nuanced because it does not feel the need to simplify in order to convince.  

We must hear every side and not only the loudest side. While social media has re-shaped the traditional power dynamic by giving some access to the powerless, it has also made it easy to mistake the loudest voices for the truest. We must protect the values of disagreement, and agree that there is value in disagreement. And we must support the principle of free expression when it does not appeal to our own agenda, difficult as that may be, and I find it particularly so.

Listen to the lecture here

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