- - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The ancients believed that certain words could change reality. To that end, spells and incantations were used to summon power and concentrate it to the user’s end.

We moderns like to think we’ve outgrown such magical thinking. But here’s the thing — it’s true.

The right words in the right order can land you that dream job. Can destroy or save a reputation. Can inspire or crush hope. Can make someone fall in love with you, or ensure they never want to see you again.

The ancients were right: Words aren’t just tools of power; they are power.

It is perhaps appreciation of this great power that lies behind the move to restrict speech on campuses, in government and in polite conversation.

The motivation must be, however unconscious, that words are simply too powerful to be trusted to the average speaker, and so the boundaries of acceptable speech become narrower and tighter. Because words can be so dangerous, the thinking goes, they must be carefully policed and allotted.

“You can’t cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” is a common refrain for those who approve of restrictions on “dangerous” speech. It is a fair point. The problem is that the word “fire” has been redefined so expansively as to include anything that may give offense to anyone, at any time.

However, if keeping to our incendiary metaphor, one might heed the old firefighter’s maxim that some fires are best fought, not with water, but with fire.

And so it is with speech. If one hears ill-mannered, ignorant or hateful discourse, the craven response is to cry for some bureaucrat to shut that person up. The braver — and harder — course is to summon words of one’s own to rise in opposition: to engage in the battle of ideas, to let loose one’s own slings and arrows and take the fight into the hearts and minds of the audience.

Silence is cowardly. To demand silence of others is equally so.

Then there is the not-so-minor problem that some things that may seem ill-mannered or unpleasant to say are nonetheless necessary to say. No one wants to mention or discuss the cancer growing on grandma’s back. But discussion is a necessary precursor to life-saving surgery.

There is a tale, perhaps apocryphal, from Thomas Jefferson’s first administration as president of the still-young United States. A visiting dignitary noticed an anti-Jefferson newspaper, filled with outrageous accusations against the chief executive, sitting atop Jefferson’s desk at the White House.

The visitor, from France as I recall, expressed surprise that the president would not only tolerate, but harbor such propaganda. Jefferson laughed and advised the man to return to Europe and tell people that in America, free speech is king.

Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia and who was a great believer in robust and spirited debate, would be horrified at how frightened and weak and powerless American students have become in the face of conflicting ideas.

Certainly, the great national debate that preceded the Constitutional Convention would have been stillborn had the Founding generation come of age amid “speech codes” and “safe zones.”

No one who was afraid to have their feelings hurt could ever have stood up to King George III and helped to defeat the mightiest empire on earth. The Founders had Washington’s army to do so, for sure. But the Declaration of Independence was more dangerous than 10,000 muskets, as the king well understood.

People who advocate for restrictions on speech want to spare feelings, and also prevent hateful and dangerous ideas from taking root. I get that. But the people most likely to fall for bad ideas are precisely those who have never been exposed to them before.

Shutting people up does not protect people from dangerous ideas. It makes them more vulnerable. Words are power; the ability to withstand them equally so.

Don’t agree with me? Good, let’s talk about it.

Matt Patterson is president and founder of 1st Amendment First.

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