Sunday, January 18, 2015

Freedom of Speech

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Voltaire

Like so many people, I have been watching the news, horrified at the events in Paris. I watched the news reports, read the articles and opinion pieces while wondering what kind of world we live in in which these types of things seem to happen with frightening regularity. After the initial shock wore off, I started thinking about it a little bit different and now, after pondering the events along with others, I’m not exactly sure what my opinion is. As I often do, I decided to write about it, let my fingers do the thinking and see what comes out of it.

Everyone seems to have jumped on the idea of freedom of speech and how an attack like the one in Paris is an attack on that freedom. But is it? I was born in a country where I am guaranteed freedom of speech by the Constitution, a right I love and cherish. I also think that with a lot of things, we rarely take a step back and really reflect on what those words “freedom of speech” actually mean. I can say without a doubt that true freedom of speech does not exist and probably never has. In America, we certainly don’t have complete freedom of speech. Every day, some actor, business person or politician is apologizing for some remark they made, a word they used that offended someone. Paula Deen was asked if she ever – the key word being “ever” - used the N-word. She said she had, a long time ago. It almost cost her her career. Isaah Washington lost his job on Greys Anatomy due to something he said to a co-star. I know full well that if I were to stand out on the street and start firing off certain words, slurs or ideas, I would be met with anger that would most likely range from shouts to violence to police intervention. I could be arrested. I could be sued. I might even be killed. If my one of my nephews or my niece is at school and says the wrong thing to someone, they can be expelled for bullying. Clearly, freedom of speech has limits. As it should.

And if any of those consequences happen, people will agree that the consequences were deserved, that I or the other person should have known better. So, while it is not at all acceptable for me to refer to black people with the N-word or use other racially charged words at others, it seems it is perfectly acceptable to take something a large part of the world holds sacred and holy and treat it with not only a lack of respect, but in a way that is known – KNOWN – to be unacceptable and offensive. When we Americans see someone burning the American flag, we get outraged. We want retaliation. When someone hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like, we act out. Remember the smashing of French wines and the short-lived freedom fries? We were angry that someone dared defy us, have a difference of opinion. French people in America were attacked. French businesses are vandalized.

So why is it that if I make a slur towards someone, I deserve what consequences come my way, but if I offend a billion or so people by making fun of and even degrading something held sacred by them, they are being unreasonable and should just see it for what it is? They should laugh it off and stop acting like angry children.

I believe that just because we have a freedom to do something, doesn’t mean we should. I believe we need to put that freedom to better use. We need to be responsible and accountable for the consequences our speech brings. Does anyone really believe that the dialogues we are having are constructive? Will they bring us closer together? Will they help us understand and respect our differences? I don’t think so. It is so easy to offend and anger. It is much more difficult to talk, listen and learn. We can have freedom of speech and still be responsible. We can have that freedom and be respectful. We can use that freedom to build or to destroy and from what I see, we seem determined to do the latter.

Freedom of speech is a powerful thing and with great power comes great responsibility.  It’s time we think about what we say and do, think for moment about where it will get us, whether it will move us forward or not. We have to move away from the attitude that my opinion is the right one and everyone else is wrong. We do that in politics. We do that in religion. We do that when it comes to race. We do that in almost every type of conversation. I would even say they aren’t conversations, but monologues aimed at getting the other person to realize they are wrong, getting the other person to change and getting a victory for ourselves. I know it’s wishful thinking that we could become a society that is respectful towards the opinions and beliefs of others. But it is something I would like to see happen. I believe open conversations with the goal of learning and understanding are the only way any of this is going to change.

As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we wish to see in world. We can’t change others, only ourselves. But I have learned that by changing myself, I can have an impact on others.

 Just to be clear, I do not like or condone violence of any type and this is in no way meant to offer any justification to anyone who hurts other people regardless of the reason or provocation.

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