This post was written by Global Citizen Year alum Nathan Edwards.
I recently saw an interview with the always sharp Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) from the summer of 2016. Bezos was asked to share thoughts on Donald Trump’s then candidacy. Bezos exercised caution in not turning the interview into a political debate but he did offer commentary on Trump's’ aversion to criticism and potential threats to squash his naysayers. Bezos argued that the leader of a country such as America, one that champions free speech, should welcome critiques defended by free speech because it is the cultural norm that forms the bedrock of our society. “Without cultural norms, the constitution is just a piece of paper,” Bezos said. Laws of the land are important. But I agree with Bezos - more important than the law itself, is how laws are given life and incorporated into society.
Currently, I see discord between law and societal implementation in the area our forefathers agreed was the most important pillar of any just society: free speech. Our laws protect our right to free speech but society has no such obligation to tolerate different viewpoints. We are seeing increasing consequences for people speaking their minds and an aversion to engage people with different viewpoints. As a result, I believe it is warranted to question whether the spirit of free speech is being carried out; if individuals are welcoming challenges to their current beliefs and organizations are promoting critical thought and different experiences. Otherwise, the constitution could be becoming ‘just a piece of paper,’ a historical memento to what Americans once emboldened.
I was fortunate to be a Global Citizen Year fellow in 2012-2013, where I lived abroad as a volunteer in Ecuador. Instead of pursuing the fluorescently lit aseptic aisles in my Colorado hometown, I bought my food from rickety wood carts in the open air streets where credit cards were not accepted. In my eight months abroad, this very real experience challenged me to think in new ways and connect thoughts that I had ignored before. I am now more rooted in the importance of education, having seen 14 year old women with children stay in abusive relationships because of the inability to support themselves without a trade or education. I still marvel at the hospitality of the Ecuadorian people across the whole country who accepted me and other Fellows into their homes and insisted all visitors get a heaping plate of food upon entering. These different experiences from what I was accustomed to, not all necessarily enjoyable, are a part of what shapes me today. They could not have been gained without seeking out a different culture from what I was previously accustomed to.
Whole Foods CEO and co-founder, John Mackey, is a good example of an individual welcoming differing perspectives. Mackey was at a shareholders meeting in 2003 where people protested Whole Foods’ treatment of animals. Although he could have had the protesters removed and dismissed their message, Mackey opened up a dialogue with the protest organizer, Lauren Ornelas, to better understand why his company of all food suppliers was being targeted by animal activists. In 2006, as a result of his research and dialogue with Ornelas, Mackey gave up all animal products in his personal diet and began to enforce higher ethical standards for the livestock of Whole Foods Markets.
Global Citizen Year and Whole Foods are organizations that encourage different experiences and opinions, permitting the world to speak and subsequently engage in what resonates as true and real. Unfortunately, there are many organizations taking actions contrary to this spirit, perhaps most evident in our universities. Earlier this spring, conservative speaker Ann Coulter was forced to cancel her speech at University of California Berkeley as student protesters threatened violence against her. The Berkeley administration acquiesced to these threats and told Coulter they could not provide adequate security for her safety, a lousy excuse considering the high-profile speakers that pass through Berkeley annually. President Obama lamented the craziness of this spectacle, calling it “ridiculous” that she not be allowed to speak. He is absolutely right. An institution that seeks to educate people should have enough faith in their members to allow exposure to wide ranging thoughts and let the student decide what they believe in. It is highly ironic that these practices are most prevalent in our institutions of learning; for people to be so assured of their own beliefs that they can in good-conscience drown out opposing beliefs is to abandon being a learner.
As corny as it sounds, free speech is a way of life. It challenges us to be exposed to ideas we may not be accustomed to and to form our own opinions. Bezos pointed out that we need cultural norms to give life to the constitution. We’ve reached a point in time where it is fair to question whether we look at free speech only when discussing law and government, or if we as individuals and institutions embody free speech as our cultural norm. As such, I am hopeful that we can actively engage people with different ideas and experiences, do not become so assured of ourselves as to result to censorship and dogmatic discourse, and appreciate what a privilege it is to be a member of a permissive society. Pointing to the first amendment is not sufficient when saying we have a free speech society. It is contingent upon us as individuals to participate in free speech and protect it for the good of ourselves and the overall health of society.
Nathan Edwards was a 2012-2013 fellow in Global Citizen Year, living in the cloud forest region of Ecuador. Edwards graduated in 2017 from the University of Colorado with a B.S. in Chemical & Biological Engineering and has since moved to Minneapolis, MN to work for Boston Scientific.