The freedom of speech doesn’t solely imply speaking out, but it includes writing and reading, listening and thinking. Why ? Because speech is our lifeblood . The essential condition of the liberal education we all are receiving. It is the ability which enables us to establish links across time and space, to learn, to understand different cultures and civilisations, to extend our knowledge both vertically and horizontally. To put an end to old enmities, to achieve détente , and to cultivate new fellowships.
Speech allows human beings to articulate their thoughts and emotions. For it is that words allow us to express our feelings, to record our experiences , to realise our ideas, to push outwards the frontiers of intellectual exploration. Words can move hearts, words can change perceptions, words can set people and nations in powerful motion. And that is why words form an essential part in the expression of our humanity.
However, the freedom of speech was, it is , and will always be, under attack. From the political right, to the left to the centre , it will come from under your feet from extremes of religion as well as philosphical ideologies , for it is never convenient, especially for entrenched power , to have a lot of free speech flying around.
And that is why , the words associated with Voltaire remain crucial and shall never be forgotten.
“ I disapprove of what you say , but I will defend to the death your right to say it “
The freedom of speech and expression sustains all the other freedoms that we are entitled to. And to shackle the freedom of speech and expression , is to cripple our basic right for realising our full potential. Every freedom we possess , or wish to possess, has had been carefully thought, and talked, and written into existence. No single individual can generate these rights alone . This process is cumulative. And it is thanks to the historical context of the relative freedom of speech that made possible the works of many who were determined to extend that liberty. John Milton, George Washington , Oliver Wendell Holmes , Abraham Lincoln , Thomas Jefferson , Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, the roll call is long and honourable - but that is why an education in the liberal arts is so vital to the culture you are about to contribute to.
Unfortunately ,there is a phenomenon in intellectual life that I call bipolar thinking, which is a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself.
Take a long journey from those shores , as I am sure many of you will , and you shall find the expression of free speech to be desperate. For it is most generally in societies where the plinth of power is narrow , that the freedom of speech is perceived as a threat to the existing order. But, where speaking out against existing wrongs and injustices is disallowed, the society becomes deprived of a vital impetus towards positive change and renewal. Censorship laws which ostensibly protect the society from iniquitous influences generally achieve little that is possible. The most common result being a persuasive atmosphere filled with uncertainty and fear that strangles innovative thought. That is why , it definitely is all the more important to be vigilant towards free speech wherever it flourishes.
All facts , ideas and issues need the input of men and women with a liberal arts education, and you are well placed to form your own conclusions, and you may reasonably conclude, that the freedom of speech and expression in never an absolute. It is not simple. We don’t give space to proselytising paedophiles , to racists or to those who wish to incite violence against others. However, it can get a little too easy to dismiss arguments who don’t necessarily like as hate speeches. Being offended is not to be confused with the state of grace, for it is the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society. And of course, there is nothing wrong in being robust, engage in arguments, not with banishment, and certainly , not with guns.
In the end, I hope that you shall use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations, the beautiful and precious , but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient and even offensive culture of freedom of speech. Take with you these celebrated words of George Washington,
“ If the freedom of speech and expression is taken away, then dumb and silent , we shall be lead like sheep to the slaughter “