Doing things differently since 1984
So there’s a hurricane afoot, and a Republican National Convention fogging up our media outlets. Am I going to discuss any of these? Of course not! (Besides, I don’t think I can top this article on What You Missed While Not Watching the First Night of the Republican National Convention)
Instead, since I just love under-reported news, I managed to come across this article, which talks about a Hitler clothing store that’s stirring up controversy in India – complete with swastika and everything. I will shamefully admit here that I have very little clue as to what extent liberties are legally upheld in India, but I couldn’t help but entertain the thought… what would happen if that happened in America?
He would get away with it, of course. It’s Freedom of Speech, right? Because I live in a country where I and 300,000,000 other people get to say and write whatever we want, no matter how bigoted, offensive, crude, degenerate, asinine, ignorant, deceptive, harmful, misleading, repulsive, or wicked it is. (That is, as long as you don’t copy word-for-word someone else who’s said the same thing.) And we wonder why Election Season is so tediously awful!
The real issue at stake is this: Should there be limits to free speech?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Freedom of Speech is great. This should be an obvious point, really, considering I use it every time I write a blog post, including this very sentence. I’m fully supportive of the fact that the government shouldn’t be able to throw someone in jail merely because they can’t keep their mouth shut.
Somewhere along the line, however, we’ve taken “I will not be thrown into jail merely because I can’t keep my mouth shut”, and made it, “It’s a free country; I can say/do whatever I want, and you should support that.”
Let’s consider this for a moment. Let’s say – theoretically, of course – that a CEO of a large national company says something that offends people. So those people boycott the company. Are they infringing upon Freedom of Speech? No, they’re not. They’re not throwing him in jail.
Let’s expand this a bit. Let’s say I want to pay to run a huge TV advertisement campaign spreading the idea that poverty exists because redheads are being allowed to integrate normally into society. Will I get thrown into jail? No. Will I be spreading concrete lies to a perhaps unsuspecting public? Yes. Should people support me feeding this rubbish to them or their children? No.
One more example, a little less extreme. Let’s say I’m at a dinner party with people I know to be adamant Romney supporters. If I was an adamant Obama supporter, does that mean I should run my mouth with all sorts of anti-Romney rhetoric? No. Will I get thrown in jail? No. Does that matter? No. It’s rude and unnecessary, and makes me look like a total jerk (and I would be).
I hope you’re getting the point. Just because we “can” say whatever we want (as in, we won’t get thrown in jail), doesn’t mean we can say whatever we want.
I spent the better part of my early 20’s in the UK, where, incidentally, Freedom of Speech is not a unswervingly protected right. For instance, protestors who burned plastic poppies at a veterans’ memorial celebration did get thrown in jail. Compare that to the U.S. court decision to let the Westboro Baptist idiots protest at soldiers’ funerals. After all, it’s Freedom of Speech. And we wonder why the rest of the developed world sees us as ignorant and tunnel-visioned. I have a lot of respect for the Brits’ general common-sense approach to politics, in stark contrast to our over-trumpeted hatemongering and race for catchy one-liners.
A lot of this comes out of an American cultural tendency to be “all or nothing”. It’s on or off, win or loss, always OK or always not OK. We hate gray areas. But when it comes to speech, perhaps we should venture a little bit into the gray and use a little bit of common sense and common decency, and think rationally about what we’re saying before we say it. Because, you know, your opinions should not matter more than your family, your friends, or your reputation.