From the Boston Tea Party to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, our nation has embraced speech over suppression. Our fight to overcome repressed voices during British rule brought about a newfound freedom: one that we encoded into our Bill of Rights. This core belief understood that the limiting of speech was tyranny in its purest form.
History lessons provide ample examples of tyrants and how they would limit speech. It is an extension of the oppressor’s power and control; look no further than the sanctions the Catholic Church placed on Galileo in the 1600s. We look at free speech and assembly as our fuel for continuous evolution and growth. We embedded it as a core value that could never go away.
We share a deep history of American debate. We are a land of immigrants who have brought different cultures, values, and beliefs to our shores. Shortly after migrating, we stick to our original tribes. While we carry the same customs, brought with them, the following generations blend into the melting pot of American identity. But a culture that is continuously evolving is accomplished only through debate, and in many cases protest.
Protests begin as a marginalized thought: one that cannot breakthrough and be heard. They give a platform to a quieted voice and bring light to issues that have been suppressed. Society gets to participate or play the role of judge. The movement either never catches on, or it gains social acceptance and our collective mindsets evolve to the next stage.
Protests can be scary. They make people uncomfortable. Protests are asking opposing sides to change their mental models and world paradigms. This challenge calls into question many people’s fundamental beliefs, and in some cases, it is too much. Their mind is either cemented and unmovable or the change in belief would be so disruptive to their entire understanding of the world that they cannot alter their reality. This elicits a level of fear of internal change.
Protests can also elicit societal fear by turning into a riot. Peaceful protests can be provoked, turning speech into action. These demonstrations carry great emotional power that hovers near a boiling point. This makes movements susceptible to provocation from the opposition side and can camouflage anarchists’ intent on turning an undertaking into violence. When that occurs, the opposing side wins a tactical battle by decreasing the effectiveness of the message. Still, with these potential outcomes, protesting is a necessity for society to evolve.
The past few years have witnessed the heightened significance of two movements. The first was the MeToo movement in association with the Women’s March; the second was the increase in awareness about racial inequality with Colin Kaepernick sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black Americans. This later peaked following the death of George Floyd and the 20-million-man protests during the summer of 2020.
Social activism typically comes with repercussions that deter others from joining. Colin Kaepernick’s career was ended. Yet, now his symbolic gesture is commonplace during the national anthem and has become a norm. The BLM protests resulted in temporary social disorder but were later championed by corporate America for bringing about change. The movement even gained mainstream sponsors, including Apple and Google.
Protests are about voicing a concern to bring to light an injustice and to sway public sentiment to your side. Initially, movements are unpopular; if they are successful, they gain traction until they become a social norm. For these two movements, public opinion has turned in favor of their efforts.
Once public opinion changes, corporate America joins the movement. Marketing figures out when public sentiment shifts to one side and businesses lend their name to support these movements. It also paved the way for more voices in corporate America to take sides on social issues.
Social media started innocently enough by amplifying the voices of those who had previously been voiceless. Then, cases arose of people losing their jobs due to what they posted on their social media profiles. Their digital form of protest revealed a misalignment with their company’s values and unemployment. Later, we saw individuals lose jobs due to their participation in contemporary protests because internet sleuths used pictures to identify participants to internet shame them and pressure their employers into holding them accountable by terminating their employment.
Companies have long held the right to employ people that represent their values, even when doing so can be at the whim of whoever is in control of the company. The belief is that a business has carte blanche in determining what adequately represents its company values. You may have freedom of speech but you can be held responsible for the consequences of that speech.
Today, employment and unemployment draw two stark comparisons of general well-being. Employment equals financial security and access to housing and healthcare. Employment also means servitude. The repercussions of losing a job echoes throughout someone’s life, giving businesses great power over an individual. This power coercively restricts speech and infringes upon individual rights.
While the current model is adamant against government regulation to control employment practices, it impinges on the core rights of freedom of speech and assembly. If these are fundamental beliefs for American society, they cannot be suppressed. When companies take political and social sides, they are making business decisions about what they feel is appropriate for their shareholders. However, being able to wield power to silence their employees that hold opposing viewpoints leads America down a treacherous path.
The power to suppress perspectives leads society to only holding the most popular opinion. Speech and protest are our tools to advance society through debate, expression of ideas, and raising awareness about injustices that have been muted. Companies that have unrestrained control over their employees and can direct their beliefs, have become mini-autocracies hidden in the Republic. It is time to evaluate additional protections for freedom of speech and assembly where both are rights that are shielded from employer interference. Just as you cannot be fired for the color of your skin, your gender, and your religious beliefs you should have the same protections based on your beliefs and how you express them.
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