Heartbreakingly, after a year or so of working with The Broad in various capacities, it’s time to move on. But the salience of the site persists now more than ever. The Broad remains unique in its ability to truly defend freedom of speech without bias or prejudice, and that’s a value we can’t underestimate.
The definition of free speech can be a fickle thing, especially among its loudest advocates. We may enjoy smugly quoting Voltaire in the moment, but would many truly be willing to “defend to the death” the right to spout hatred, to defend atrocities, or to promote the same tried-and-failed ideologies that have caused us so much grief throughout history?
Naturally, some would. To those absolutists, our freedom of expression does not exist on a scale. We are free to speak as we please, or we are not. There can be no in-between. Even the most abhorrent of ideas must be allowed to be spoken, otherwise the very principle of free speech is rendered null and void.
But this is hardly ideal. It may sound rather romantic, but is it wise or even desirable to follow a model of free speech where a calm discussion is held to be as valuable as shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded room?
For the most part, this has been the crux of the contemporary discussion surrounding free speech. Whether we’re discussing no-platforming, banned Twitter accounts, or whether we can justifiably punch fascists in the face, we are always asking the same question: where, if anywhere, should the limits to legitimate free speech lie?
As a result, we’ve found ourselves going down the wrong path entirely. In asking where these limits should be, we assume that we have the power to impose them. After all, we are free to say anything we want until somebody stops us. In discussing limits, we can only ever discuss differing arbitrary definitions of what should or should not be acceptable, and then try, often fruitlessly, to impose them.
This is never the way to control harmful speech and ideas. Imposing limits through banning, censoring, or no-platforming an idea doesn’t stop its advocates from speaking; they keep going even if we plug our ears and sing la la la.
More importantly, how do we decide where these limits should lie? Who says what is or isn’t acceptable speech? We have to realise that we have neither the power nor the knowledge to decide or impose the limits of free speech.
Instead, we have to let these limitations arise naturally, through rational discourse in an open marketplace of ideas. We don’t need to ban or restrict what people can say, we have to call-out and expose terrible or harmful ideas when we hear them. We can’t expect to be able to relegate the things we fear or disagree with to the shadows; it’s crucial now more than ever that we bring them to the light.
This is why sites such as The Broad are so important. Providing a ‘space to speak’ for students doesn’t just give us a place to shout our own opinions, but provides us with this marketplace whereby good and bad ideas alike can be exposed and evaluated.
In doing so, we emulate the mechanism by which the limits of free speech evolve. Rather than removing an idea entirely, we encourage disagreement and debate. We let the good ideas rise above and be seen for their virtues, and allow the bad to be ridiculed and criticised.
Philosopher Karl Popper famously wrote of the paradox of tolerance, and how we must be intolerant of those ideas harmful to free expression if we wish to see its survival. He was absolutely correct, but his warning is often mistaken as a justification for censorship. In reality, intolerance of dangerous ideas is far more effectively carried-out by the discourse encouraged in an open marketplace of ideas.
This is why The Broad is so much more than just a space to speak – it’s a buttress against those forces which would see free speech destroyed.