She sat near the back of the classroom with 179 other public speaking students at Utah State University. The only person in the room wearing a headscarf, she had spoken to the class before about feeling different. The professor was talking about vulnerability; how we open ourselves to criticism and judgment when we tell the audience how we really feel. When she raised her hand, he immediately called on her.
“I am worried sometimes that I don’t have the right words in this language,” she said. “But I am not afraid here. I can say what I want and I don’t have to be afraid.”
Her statement made me pause because, in a public speaking class, fear is one of the common sentiments that people express. But is that the kind of fear that makes you check under the bed for monsters? I don’t think it’s the kind of fear that keeps us up in the night clutching our pillows for comfort. People may be shy, modest or nervous, but are they really afraid?
I talked with the student later. English is Hadjer Benesher’s third language. She described her life in her home country of Algeria as constrained. She constantly faced the possibility of judgment, shame, or even beatings based on things she said or did in public. She mentioned that if an Algerian didn’t like what another person said, they could harm that person and authorities would do nothing to stop it. But she said living in Logan is different. “Even if people don’t like me, or my headscarf, or my religion, they still have to respect me.”
So, she speaks up. There’s something empowering about the ability to have a voice or an opinion and have the opportunity to share it – without fear.
Freedom of speech is written in the First Amendment of the Constitution for a reason. It is vital to a functional democracy. George Washington said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Have you ever considered how fortunate that freedom really makes us? Not just in the United States, but here in Utah and in Cache Valley? The First Amendment doesn’t just grant us the right to speak, it also protects the ability to protest. We see protesters around the world who are assaulted and jailed for their views, but we are not. We are able to sit on the courthouse lawn or flood city hall meetings without fear. People can oppose the majority without fear. And they should be unafraid.
Freedom of the press is also a vital First Amendment right. For me, it hits home because I write this column. As such, I express my own thoughts and feelings at the risk of being judged. In a community where 10,000 people regularly read the paper, not all of them agree with me. Occasionally, they are outright hostile about it. I have been insulted because of my stance on various issues. My intellect has been called into question. I’ve been degraded because of my religion, my gender, and my political stance. Cyber-bullying is ugly and I’ve been on the receiving end of it. That’s not a very nice feeling. But I can honestly say, I have never felt afraid. Readers disagree with me. They may do so vehemently. But they won’t bother my kids or destroy my property. They won’t hurt me or threaten me. I feel safe sharing what is on my mind. I’m so grateful for that.
To those who disagree with me, thank you for reading. Thank you for listening. Thank you for speaking. Thank you for participating in the marketplace of ideas. I’m not afraid to share with you. I know that you aren’t afraid to respond or to disagree. It is possible for us to disagree gracefully and have real conversations about hard topics. The ability to have a discussion without fear of physical or political retribution is empowering.
We sit on the brink of another important piece of our democracy. On Nov. 6 we have the opportunity to sound our voices in a different way – with our votes. The Utah lieutenant governor’s office reports over 60,000 more voters registered to participate in this year’s election as compared to December of 2017. With so many propositions on the ballot and our huge potential turnover in the Utah State Legislature, more voters are welcome.
Nelson Mandela once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Knowing what is at stake this election season, we have opportunities to enhance the wellbeing of fellow Utahns by turning out to vote. Those who have not registered yet, there’s still time. The Cache County Clerk’s Office is open for early voting and registration every weekday until Oct. 29. To register to vote, residents need a valid picture ID and proof of residency. The clerk’s website says, “Voters who are not registered, but are otherwise eligible to vote may vote provisionally in person on Election Day.”
We should all be able to participate in the political process without fear. The law provides for it, but as citizens, we are the ones who see that our republic functions as it should. We come to the polls to let our votes be counted and our voices heard. We do it because we are unafraid.