The Responsible Use of Freedom
By Laura J. Rediehs
When we advocate freedom of expression, we are trying to protect
the freedom to express our views and concerns honestly, without fear
of punishment. Academic freedom protects the stance of educational
institutions to play a watchful, critical role in society. These freedoms
are not meant to indulge people in abusive venting, or to protect those
who do this from having to deal with outraged responses to their outbursts.
But because it is impossible to control how others express themselves
without compromising these freedoms, there will be times when people
express themselves in ways that others will find offensive.
The question then is whether we want to curb these freedoms by imposing
controls over how people express themselves, or whether we want to
preserve the full freedoms even at the risk that people will sometimes
express themselves in ways that others find hurtful. While initially
it may seem like a good idea to set rules of civil discourse in order
to inhibit hurtful ways of expressing ideas, in practice, enforcing
such rules without disrupting the discussion itself may be impossible.
In my observations of campus dialogues, I have seen that most people
who criticize others’ modes of expression end up inhibiting the
free exchange of ideas, whether that is their intention or not. People
become so distracted by how the ideas were expressed that they forget
to engage those ideas directly. True dialogue over the issues shuts
down in favor of a new debate about the morality of each side’s
manner of expression. For example, last spring’s controversy
over a professor’s Web log became a lively controversy over academic
freedom instead of an engaged dialogue over important issues concerning
politics and race. All of the attention to the manner of communication
diverted attention away from engaging the hard questions he had raised
in his blog about racial stereotyping.
Since we cannot control how others express themselves no matter how
hard we try, perhaps we should change the question. Instead of asking
whether or not we should set and enforce rules of discourse, perhaps
the more important question is how to keep good, engaged dialogue going
even when people get upset. Debates over important issues will spark
strong emotion, and this is not something bad. Strong emotion is a
sign that people care.
In teaching peace-related courses in the First-Year Program, I have
been most fascinated by the question of how peacemakers prepare themselves
to walk straight into conflict unarmed. I have learned that
even though we cannot control how others behave, we do have the power
to change how we ourselves engage in dialogue, not only in how we express
ourselves, but also in how we listen. If even one party in
a dialogue practices both speaking and listening well, it is far more
likely that the dialogue will go well—that both sides will learn
from each other and move together toward better understanding and even
some agreement about the issues that concern them.
What can one person do that can make a difference? If you concentrate
on expressing your ideas clearly without resorting to name-calling
or other kinds of verbal attacks, and without questioning the motives
(or intelligence, or morality) of those with whom you disagree, your
ideas are more likely to be heard and considered seriously. So, being
careful about how you express yourself is one powerful way that you
can make a difference.
The other kind of power we have in dialogue is the power of listening
well. Even if the other person expresses himself or herself badly,
it is still possible to discipline yourself to listen through the words
to the real experiences, feelings, needs and ideas the person is trying
to express, and then respond to those points instead of critiquing
the person’s mode of communication.
Both of these ways of engaging well in dialogue help you to become
a stronger person, capable of experiencing your own full range of emotions
without being thrown by them. Cultivating a habit of looking for the
good in others—and in yourself—in every interaction helps
to draw out people’s goodness and creates possibilities for connection
and problem-solving. It creates the conditions for the optimal freedom
of expression, because ultimately what most inhibits freedom is fear.
Approaching all dialogues with respectfulness builds the trust that
counters this fear. Such dialogues become occasions of genuinely free
Sticks and Stones…
Professor Redieh’s Three-Step Program for Responding to Verbal
When you find yourself hurt and upset by what someone has said, ask
if there is something you yourself can do that will help you
to recover. Taking the following three steps can be enormously helpful,
not only for yourself, but also for everyone involved.
Step 1: Look again at the painful situation and try to find one place
where the other person may have made a good point, or at least uttered an honest
and understandable expression of his or her own pain.
Step 2: Look again at the words or event and, this time, look for one place
where what the person said or did hurt or offended you in a way that you feel
is unjustified. Try to clarify exactly what was misunderstood or misperceived
regarding your own actions, words or intentions. Just one example --
even if 99% of that episode was unjustified, pick the most important instance.
Step 3: If this wasn't really directly about you, forgive the person--you
have clarified your own continued worthiness, so you may be ready now to move
on. If this was about you, or for other reasons you feel it would
be good to respond, plan your response carefully. Should you write an
e-mail, and if so, should it be public or private, and why? Should you
meet with the person one-on-one? Should you invite a neutral party? Whether
you respond in writing or in person, the nature of your response is clear--simply
make the two points from steps 1 and 2, in order.
Since a meeting is usually the more challenging approach, let’s
consider that scenario in some detail. First, from step 1, affirm
the good point that the person made, or acknowledge sympathy with the
person’s pain. It is important to realize that this step
is about the other person, not about you. This
step has enormous power. It will make the other person feel much
better and will take the edge off of his or her anger and begin to
build trust. You will no longer seen as the enemy. People
do want to be heard and understood -- especially those people
who express themselves badly and hurtfully!
Give the person a chance to respond, stay with him or her, listen
sympathetically, and then, when the time is right, move on to your
next point--what you learned from step 2. Here, you say something
like, “I felt hurt when you said..., because....” Use this
as an opportunity to clarify your own good intentions. Now this
is about you. Simply express your own pain (briefly),
but mostly express what you were trying to do. The point here
is to correct the misperception of you on this one point, to offer
reassurance that you are a good person trying to do the right thing.
Again, give the person time to respond. If you've conducted
the first part of the conversation well, the response may simply be
an apology. If instead it’s defensive, try to quell this
by saying things like, “I’m just trying to help you understand
where I’m coming from,” to shift the attention gently back
That's it. Let go of all the rest. End the conversation
with grace and gratitude. If follow-up is needed on other points
of your disagreement, save it for another day. If you have a
third person present, that person's main job is to make sure that neither
of you tries to push further at this point. If more needs to
be done, schedule a follow-up meeting; plan this one carefully too,
to be as simple and focused as possible.
This process may not be easy, but it works. Its power is that
at the very least, it helps you to deal with your own pain and makes
you a stronger person. We cannot control most of what happens
to us: once it has happened, it has happened. But we do
have control over our responses, and this way of responding does amazing
things. It helps us learn not to be so afraid of those who hurt us.
It helps us become strong enough to acknowledge our own shortcomings
without becoming self-destructive. And it helps us affirm our value
and learn to express our own good intentions more clearly.
Professor of Philosophy Laura Rediehs is a member of Faculty Council
and a past member of the Spiritual and Religious Life Committee; she
was one of the facilitators at the 2004 Laurentian Leadership Weekend
forum on academic freedom and civil discourse