Amid recent racial incidents on campus, I have found myself thinking a lot about what it means to protect free speech without encouraging hateful rhetoric. If it were feasible to protect both free speech and individuals from being terrorized for being different, then I would fully support it. But this unfortunately is not possible, at least not legally. Government cannot regulate the opinions of others or much less their choice of words. Doing so would mean that someone would have to decide what is offensive and what is acceptable, but can anyone really decide something so subjective? This, however, has been used an excuse to allow hateful language to circulate frequently throughout society. This is simply unacceptable and represents the lazy option. I argue it is plausible to uphold freedom of speech while also putting an end to the normalization of such rhetoric through the education system.
Take for example, a situation where a transgender student is being targeted for their sexual orientation. Every day the student endures hours of offensive language on their walk to and from school. This continues to occur until one day, the student finds the courage to bring this harassment to the attention of the administration, only to be told that because they didn’t suffer physical harm, there is not much that can be done. We have created a society where our youth are being taught how to survive such treatment rather than focusing on the root of the problem: Raising our children to be more accepting. The power behind education is infinite, but we need to be creating a well-rounded education system in which kids are not only groomed for financial success but in being a decent human as well.
For instance, behind the controversy of banning Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the education system failing to prepare our kids for more than just academic and monetary success. Certain schools chose to take the novel out of the curriculum because of its portrayal of racism and the use of the n-word. According to an article called, “Teaching Huck Finn: The Controversy and Challenge,” the New York Board of Education removed “Huck Finn” from textbooks list of elementary and junior high school because critics, authors, religious fundamentalists and right-wing politicians found the novel racially offensive. More importantly, there was a concern teachers would not be able to effectively discuss the novel due to the uncomfortable conversation it brings.
Removing a novel as infamous and educational as “Huck Finn” does more harm to students than good. Mark Twain knew what he was doing when he wrote the novel. He uses the n-word precisely because of its offensive connotations and the history that sits behind it. Banning the novel because of its use of the n-word and other racial slurs is an attempt to hide the reality of America’s past. It is evident the content and quality of this material is intense and sensitive but that only means it needs to be approached and taught in a specific way.
We can instill in our youth the ability to empathize and relate to individuals who are different from them. What cannot be written in a constitution can be written in societal norms, through an education system that fosters open and safe conversations. There needs to be a balance between practicing our freedom of speech and excusing cruel behavior so that in the future we do not have to be having this conversation.
Rosanna Neri Mini is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.