A Therapist’s Plea for Freedom of Speech

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.—Frederick Douglass.

The single best predictor of a positive therapeutic outcome is the relationship a client has with her therapist or counselor. Cultivating a relationship in which the client can be her fully authentic self is a top priority for mental health professionals. If this relationship is not formed, therapy is very often short-lived, awkward and ultimately unhelpful for the client. In such cases, it feels as though each person is a puzzle piece, but from completely different puzzle sets: they do not fit and conversation feels choppy and forced—which is unpleasant for everyone involved. Conversely, when the relationship is solid, conversation is fluid and engagement on the part of both parties is high. People are generally calm, even when difficult and uncomfortable topics are brought to light, laid out in the open and examined. So, the question is, how do we cultivate that relationship, and what factors are important? The key is the shared understanding that what we say will be welcomed, regardless of its content.

In counseling, it is okay to not know an answer, to be wrong or to make mistakes. For many clients, simply being able to say what is on their minds to someone who won’t retaliate or judge them is therapeutic in itself. Countless times, clients report feeling better simply because they were able to say the things they had been holding in. Perhaps they have been avoiding a difficult conversation with a romantic partner, or perhaps they cannot say what they think for fear of being ostracized at work. The overarching theme is that they feel they have to suppress their speech.

Almost all of us have been asked a tough question and struggled to find an answer. Sometimes, we change our answer halfway through—because we need to say what we think, in order to find out what we think. Our thoughts can quickly get discombobulated in our heads, intertwining with hundreds of others. But when we have to form coherent sentences and try to communicate with someone other than ourselves, we clean up our own thinking in the process. In the absence of this, one becomes much more susceptible to stress and anxiety and more liable to have difficulty concentrating. We can see this play out when someone’s speech is tangential or difficult to follow. We experience our own forms of this in our interpersonal relationships all the time. We may have difficulty having a conversation with someone we’ve lived with for years. Unspoken tensions can build until one partner cannot stand it anymore, and an argument ensues. At times, those individuals will seek couples’ counseling. This involves each individual learning to listen to the other, to understand the other person’s perspective. Otherwise, the problem is likely to remain unsolved, causing the fights to recur.

When asked a question and allowed to answer freely, many people feel finally, I can talk about this. One of the most important values that liberal societies have cultivated is free speech. We often discuss free speech on a broad scale, but both the positive outcomes of free speech and the dire consequences of suppression of speech also affect us on an individual level. As Marianne Williamson has commented, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

When we cultivate a culture in which we can speak our minds, we all benefit. Even bad ideas need to be aired. As Bret Weinstein has pointed out, bad ideas must be brought to light so that we can all agree that they are bad and look elsewhere for better ones. This is beneficial to the person speaking the bad idea, who can obtain feedback and subsequently choose whether to hold onto the idea or change their position. Many are concerned that speech may be harmful. It can be: words have meaning and they matter. However, the point of speaking is to obtain feedback. If we were to receive no feedback, there would be no point to speaking at all. We should consider the consequences of not allowing certain ideas to be aired.

We all can agree that we should work to prevent homicides and suicides whenever possible. But how many deaths could we prevent if those in enough mental pain to kill themselves or others were given the space to discuss their inner turmoil? Real or perceived social isolation plays a huge role in many cases of suicide. Among the more popular theories of suicide, is the interpersonal-psychological theory (IPT), formulated by psychologist Thomas Joiner. Two key tenets of IPT are that a perception that one is burdening others and a sense of social isolation can create the desire for death. When counselors talk to a suicidal client, we give the client room to talk about her suicidality freely. If we do our job correctly, she can sense that we understand her point of view. Then, we can talk about alternative outcomes—because we have created a relationship in which we can question ideas without it being perceived as a personal attack on the client’s character. We offer feedback in a way that tells the client, I’m not saying you’re wrong and I’m right. I see where you’re coming from. Can we look at some alternatives? Talking about suicide with someone who is suicidal is difficult, but avoiding the conversation only helps us feel comfortable, while the client remains at risk. A culture of free speech is pivotal in avoiding harm. If we want better health outcomes, freedom of speech is a top priority.

The same argument can be made for homicide. Anyone who has read the writings that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre, left behind may reasonably conclude lives would have been saved if others had known about their ideas. If Eric and Dylan had felt as if they could talk about their frustrations with those around them, might they have made a different decision? Or, at the very least, might the school, community and authorities been more prepared? We don’t get to decide what people do with their thoughts. When we send a message that says, don’t say that out loud, it does not follow that the thought disappears into nothingness. The thought is still there, to be ruminated upon, festering and coloring that person’s view of the world. It is simply not true that suppression of negative and even harmful speech is the safer option.

This is why a national culture of free speech benefits everyone. The monster we know is better than the monster we don’t. Wouldn’t you rather be aware that the person you’re talking to is contemplating pulling a gun on you than remain willfully blind to that reality? Both listener and speaker benefit from free speech, as Frederick Douglass pointed out. The speaker can learn what he actually thinks and can receive feedback, and the listener gets to work with the speaker to either come to a mutual understanding or separate from him knowing where they both stand. The benefits go beyond the individual speakers and listeners, too. Conversations between just a few people have had enormously positive ramifications for all of us: the evidence is everywhere. We now use rationalism and empiricism to make progress, instead of relying on blind faith, religious and ideological fundamentalism, or other ideas that halt progress. Who knows where we would be if free speech had not been exalted as a value towards which to strive? One thing is for sure—free speech is the bedrock of much of what we enjoy and significantly benefits our mental health. When we are allowed to think freely, our minds are healthier. When we can say what we think to another person, we strengthen our relationship with that person. When we come together to solve a problem and allow all possible ideas to be considered, we make exponential progress. As Marianne Williamson comments, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”

Say what you think, so you can find out what you think. Say what you think, so you can get feedback to help you grow.

Allow us to say what we think, so we can find out what we think. Allow us to say what we think, so that we can work together towards the progress that will benefit us all.

Published July 24, 2020

Steve Dreesman is a temporary licensed mental health counselor who has worked closely with individuals with concerns of anxiety, depression, suicidality, stress, men’s issues, perinatal mental health, and relationship issues. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDreesman

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