Monday, February 23, 2015

Freedom of Speech

One of our most basic Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms is freedom of speech ... the right to express our opinions directly and forthrightly, without fear of government censure or censorship. Most of us would acknowledge, though, that absolute and total freedom of speech isn't possible or desirable, and we understand that there need to be practical limits on what we say. You can't yell "fire!!" in a crowded theater or incite a mob to riot, for example. Because I hold a security clearance, I understand that there is military and government information I'm not allowed to discuss openly, and there is also proprietary information that my employer doesn't allow me to divulge. There are defensible reasons for such limitations on our freedom of speech, and most of us accept them*.

But how far do we want those limits to go, and who should decide what they are?

Members of some religious denominations believe that criticism of or insult to their beliefs should be forbidden. For an idea of how that works out in practice, look at Pakistan, where you can be condemned to death for blasphemy, and the criteria for what constitutes "blasphemy" are pretty loose.

Some people believe they have the right to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree, or resort to ad hominem attacks. It's always easier to criticize others than to come up with ideas of your own, or to replace rational thought with high volume.

Some people believe that certain words are so offensive that they should never be spoken under any circumstances. We've even coined code words for some of them, such as the dreaded "n-word."

And many people nowadays practice self-censorship ... avoiding any comments that might possibly offend someone. This has its own crippling effect on the marketplace of ideas, as brilliantly noted in this editorial cartoon by Jim Morin ...

Someone** once said that what this country needs is more free speech worth listening to, and I think that is the root of our problem. Everyone wants freedom of speech, but not everyone wants to listen to speech with which he or she disagrees ... indeed, many people don't think there's any value at all in listening to anything that doesn't line up with their preconceived beliefs***. To many, freedom of speech equates to the freedom of other people to say only those things they think ought to be said.

I have always thought that freedom of speech should have as few limits as possible, because it makes it easier to recognize and argue against stupidity. Nowadays, though, freedom of speech often comes accompanied by its undesirable cousin, Ironclad Certainty - the absolute, rock solid belief in the unshakeable truth of ones own position and the complete refusal to consider anything else. Try talking to a far right or far left political adherent, or to a religious fundamentalist if you don't believe me. They're in the transmit mode only, and their clue chutes are close, locked, welded shut, and painted over. If you're not saying what they want to hear, they're not listening.

We've come a long way from the freedom of speech ideal immortalized by Norman Rockwell's 1943 painting, in which a stereotypical common man speaks his mind while everyone else listens respectfully ...

I've often observed that Freedom of Speech is not always accompanied by Freedom of Smart. But if you don't listen with an open and respectful mind, you can't very well evaluate what's smart and what isn't.

Not that it seems to make much difference nowadays ... look at the people we elect.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Unless you take the Edward Snowdon approach to your responsibilities.

** That would be Hansell B. Duckett, about whom I can find no other information beyond credit for this wonderful quote.

*** This probably explains the popularity of Faux News.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

I'm for freedom of speech, even for wingnuts. It actually helps when they self-identify.

Linda Kay said...

A short film got an award last night for the story of Edward Snowden. The host mentioned that he got the award for a good 'treason'. Pretty funny. I agree that freedom of speech seems to now be couched with politically correct.

Mike said...

"..the transmit mode .."
I like that.

Brandi said...

It is a fine line between advocating free speech and offending someone else. People who use the n-word are classless.

allenwoodhaven said...

Love the Hansell B. Duckett quote. Though I've never heard of him, he should be famous for this quote alone! Washington DC should erect a statue of him.