A police chief’s defense of free speech

399181_187309941440259_1983793252_nWhen residents of Nashville took to the streets in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, some locals were upset the police did not intervene. “Why are the police allowing this,” a citizen asked Chief Steve Anderson, claiming the protests were at a “disharmony” with the “majority” of Nashville . “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way. Is this going to be allowed to continue until someone gets hurt?”

The protest-as-safety-issue is a meme that has unfortunately become all too familiar in the campus environment. Whenever university students discuss university investments in the Israeli occupation or host public events—protests or otherwise—criticizing that occupation, a bevy of complaints raising concerns about “safety,” “harassment,” and “intimidation” arrive in university administrators’ inboxes. These vague allegations almost never point to particular incidents like, say, a threat, a shove, a targeted slur, or something everyone would agree is inappropriate. Rather, they claim that other students’ vocally questioning U.S. foreign policy or common assumptions about Israel and Palestine creates a climate of “fear.”

Chief Anderson’s thoughtful response to a Nashville resident re-casts this kind of complaint as a form of insecurity about being challenged for one’s beliefs, rather than a legitimate safety issue.

• “These actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens.”

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong.

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement.  None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone.  I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.