It’s clear to many of us educated, critical thinkers that the fever pitch of hate speech and verbal violence has grown so loud that it’s hard to distinguish the facts from the malice. Social media has only served to polarize our positions, with the algorithms so perfectly tuned that we only get the messages we want, rather than hearing any substantial arguments from the other side.
Shouting matches and sensationalism have drowned out real evidence-based events, special interests control the content and tone of the information, distilling complicated issues into black and white tug-of-war.
Our kids are growing up in this hard-bitten, new world, and in order from them to defend their rights, they must first know them and understand the implications. So let’s look at ways we can empower our young people so they know why the freedom of speech is such a potent one.
1. Explain the First Amendment. One of the tenants that set us aside historically, and acted as a beacon of freedom from the birth of our democracy is the First Amendment: the right to freedom of speech, religion and press. Because of these rights, we have the ability to protest, we can express ourselves and our views without the threat of persecution, and we have the right to access and distribute our views, no matter the content. That being said, it is important to also teach our children that in exercising this right, they should also be respectful of the right of others to disagree with them. Verbal brutality only weakens a civilized society
2. Model free expression in your own actions. It’s so important that your children see you listening and respecting other’s views when you fundamentally disagree. We show our kids that we can hold our own beliefs and make room for others, that civilized society is about discourse. This also means having controlled conversations about issues that push your buttons. Avoid name-calling and finger-pointing when you discuss the issues at home.
3. The freedom to opt out. At the very root of our laws lies the ability for each of us to think and live how we choose, in essence, express our free will in peace. That freedom of speech is two-ended; we have the right not to participate. For example, if a hate group is doing a demonstration in public, you have the right to walk away. We have Miranda Rights that protect us from incriminating ourselves, and the right to counsel in service of our expression. It’s implicit in the law that we are also not forced to speak.
4. Constructive compromise. Our forefathers envisioned a healthy and lively debate among opposing sides. In fact the Capitol cafeteria has hosted those roll-up-your-sleeves discussions for over a hundred years. Bear in mind that if the freedom to express our views wasn’t there, we would never know what that other person was thinking, and anyone who has lived in the shadow of a dictatorship will tell you the level of mistrust people have for one another when they are silenced. Communication builds trust, even if you recoil at your opposition’s ideas, by dialoging, you establish boundaries and see where you can compromise. The whole premise, as our founders imagined it, was that rigorous dialogue allowed the best ideas to arise over time.
5. Push for civics, government, and journalism in schools. When budget cuts roll through schools, these critical areas of study get cut first. For our children to truly understand the First Amendment as a value system, they need to explore it from different angles. That means mock trial, writing articles about controversial subjects, and putting it into action. Learning history is just as important, but it is not enough. If your children don’t have access to these types of classes, find a way to supplement.
Rights are kind of like muscles: if you don’t use them, you weaken the system. As a society, we need rock-solid understanding of our basic rights under the constitution. Our kids must be armed with the necessary tools to exercise their most powerful right going into the future: their voices.