Freedom of Speech (But Only if You Agree With What I Say)

America used to be a place where people could say what they thought even if it were stupid, hateful or perhaps brilliant. Today, none of that matters. It only matters that what you say be politically correct, that it not be offensive to anyone. It seems that we no longer know how to debate an issue. We cannot have a logical reasoned discussion, so we have decided not to discuss at all. We are only supposed to say inoffensive drivel. Now it is true that my mother taught me that if I could not say something nice about someone, I shouldn’t say anything at all. That is not really bad advice, but the important issues are not usually about people. The important issue may really be about how people behave or what they believe but not really about them. But people have great difficulty separating their beliefs and their behaviors from who they are.

I was listening to a well known talk radio host today. I was struck by how he manipulated the show. Cutting off the conversation of callers or guests with whom it was clear he did not agree and letting those whom he did agree with ramble on. Guest on the show continually spoke over one another as if the quantity of their talk could compensate for the quality of their logic. It struck me as tragic that this “debate” was not a learned exchange of ideas with data but rather a presentation of emotion and opinion. But, then, I suppose, I should recall that this was not meant to be an intellectual exchange but rather entertainment guised as “talk radio”. I guess it was nice to learn how the host and his guest felt about the topic and I suppose for some it was entertaining to listen to the lively exchange between the three; but, it seemed to me that much more could had been accomplished if the speakers would stop and think now and then. Despite my frustration with the lack of useful information to be gleaned from this discussion I would not prevent it. This is America and there are still a few of us who believe in freedom of speech. After all, to stop listening I only have to turn the dial or push a button.

Voltaire is often credited with saying:  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These words may not have actually been Voltaire’s but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who is thought to have been trying to summarize Voltaire’s sentiment on the topicn in 1906 when writing “The Friends of Voltaire” under the pen name of S. G. Tallentyre. Whoever, penned this phrase, it should be in the belief system of every true American. In a country which prides itself on freedom of expression, I think that we should all believe that even if we disagree with what someone says, we should defend their right to say it. Thus, I would defend the right of this talk radio host and his guest to say what they will, even if it were not politically correct or completely inoffensive. Defending such freedom requires great tolerance. We have to be willing to be offended by what people say. My mother had a saying about that too: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Now of course we all know that words can cause hurt feelings but if we are adult we will know that words spoken with the intent to produce emotional pain are really a reflection of the speakers sense of suffering or inadequacy. Those people need our help. Unfortuantely, they rarely realize or are willing to admit that they are lashing out with words because they are in pain, fearful or embarrassed.

Charles Dickens, in “A Christmas Carol” identified the two great dangers facing mankind as ignorance and want. That would still seem to be true today as it was in the 1800’s. Greed and ignorance have been the ruin of many a man and nation. Want can occur in many fashions. Simple desire for material wealth is an easily understood form of want. The desire to have everyone agree with one’s point of view is another form of want. Ignorance may likewise manifest itself in different ways. Very brilliant men may be ignorant of the Lord. Very religious men may be ignorant of science. (Very brilliant men will have a deep knowledge of both God and science!) I think that limiting free speech is a primary way to control a populace. Hitler (greedy for power) knew that if he could control what people were allowed to write about or talk about, he could control the people (he could keep them ignorant of the truth). We will be found to be a highly ignorant people if we forfeit free speech. But to truly have free speech we must be willing to defend the right of those we do not agree with to express themselves. So Christians and atheist, gays and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, all groups of different opinions must be allowed to speak. All must be protected equally under the law. It is not freedom of speech if you can only say it if the courts, the government or some arbitrary censor approves (agrees with) what is said.

It is my opinion, that freedom of speech works best when people stop before they speak and think about whether what they are saying is truth and whether it will be spoken in love. Hate speech should not be illegal but it should be something a mother would never teach their child to do. But, how can this come to pass? I think that the only way truth in love and truth in generosity (as opposed to greed) can become part of daily life, part of our being, is for us to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. God is love (agape love) and truth. His Son taught us that to follow the ways of God means that we must care for one another, lift each other up, in short: love our neighbors as ourselves (even if our neighbors are of a different race, sexual orientation, religion or social class). God even tells us that we are to love and pray for our enemies! It is not always easy being a Christian! Jesus is our model, our template for how we are to lead our lives. Yes, I can hear the cynic saying: “Then why do Christians so often fail miserably at being Christ?” Well, the short answer is because we are all human (or as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Human all too Human”). So, I do not offer a utopian, pie in the sky answer. I offer a difficult but eternally rewarding path: follow Jesus. Some will retort, but Jesu said: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-31) I must confess, that this has always seemed both true and not true. In many ways following Jesus has lightened my burden but it is not always easy to do what Jesus would do (turn the other cheek, love my enemy, etc). However, in the end, when I do what Jesus would have done (led by the Holy Spirit) despite how difficult it was, my burden does seem lighter (made lighter by the joy of serving Christ).

It is the strength of my Christian faith allows me to defend your right to free speech no matter what you have to say. This seems especially appropriate as Jesus is the Word of God and I know that no word man speaks can overcome, invalidate or harm the Word. So while many would claim that America is not a Christian country, I would claim that it is the confidence of the Christian faith, the tolerance of the Christian faith and the willingness of Christians to tolerate debate that helps perpetuate freedom of speech. (This is not to ignore the fact that there are some Christians who in their lack of humility (in their ignorance– one of Dickens’ two dangers) and their desire (want– Dickens’ other danger) to have everyone do as they do, act in very un-Christ-like ways and seek to censor those with whom they disagree. Sometimes what these Christians say may be true but it seems to me that these Christians are sacrificing love for truth. I think Christ always put both together. That after all is his God nature: love and truth.)

So, speak out America! Even if I do not agree with what you have to say, I will defend your right to say it. However, I would challenge you to speak truth. Truth may require that you say politically incorrect things but if you say these things with love it will be difficult to argue that you are being hateful.

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