How many times have you stared across the room, exhausted from that loudmouth’s ranting about politics or religion? You wanted to tell them to stuff it. And maybe that night you did. But most likely you didn’t. After all, it’s their right, right?
However, these days when I hear what some people are doing with this right, I can’t help wonder why the hell should I defend, let alone die for, what these crazies are saying!
Obvious examples: punk rappers lathering their lyrics into young minds …hate mongers hating on blogs and cable…wing-nut religionists burning Korans and boycotting military funerals. Then there’s the less obvious examples: free-speech subtly degenerating into carefree-speech.
I am told by the best legal and academic minds that for a society to try distinguishing between free and carefree would be to gut this very right itself. I’m further told a true democracy must permit even the wildest misuses, because in the long run they will always be discredited in the “marketplace-of-ideas.”
I grant, this marketplace does exist. Obvious example: the way the Bleacher Bums shout down the crazy fan out there heaping abuse on the players. Less obvious example: the way Edward R Murrow exposed the mendacity of Joe McCarthy’s 1950s Witch Hunt.
But now to two of the Gimme-A-Break uses of our free speech:
* The Gotcha Soundbite ~ This is when a supposedly serious democracy wastes its time exploiting some isolated comment by a candidate. Does free speech justify hours of wrangling over dumb but out-of-context passages that have little to do with the central issues? In the classroom no teacher is going to defend the right of the class clown to argue the Civil War never happened. Which makes you wonder about the national clowns arguing the candidate didn’t get born here or didn’t pay all his taxes here
* The Rabbinical Riddle ~ Rabbis are admired for on-the-other-handing each important issue. Wisely they keep us on our intellectual toes rather than let us dance blindly into some easy but foolish conclusions. Notice, however, how virtually every freedom-of-speech article these days [new medication, new cosmic discovery, new sociological survey] is jammed with confusing on-the-other-hands. Just about the time the expert seems to be reaching a conclusion you can use, they hesitate with another but-on-the-other- hand. Look, if they weren’t sure about this report, why should I be sure to read it
OK, there’s much more to any discussion about the right of free speech. Only can we just once stop our knee from jerking into predictable place defending anything-anyone-says-about-everything? I get it — it’s their RIGHT! But where may we ask is their OBLIGATION to use this right properly?
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