Pop references to freedom of speech: entitled to or just entitled?

The approach of the 4th of July weekend makes me think of and reflect on the good ol USA. There are many things I appreciate but I also don’t feel so good about certain aspects of my country. Like say for instance the fact that this country was created by stealing land and largely killing off an entire race. Those Native Americans whose ancestors survived remain horribly oppressed to this day.

There is also this and this and my knowledge of these things would make me uncomfortable to feel only positively towards my home country. I mean, dissent is patriotic right?

That said, there are many things I appreciate about the US and it is where I happily choose to live. I know some, perhaps a lot, of people would say I am anti-American because I have anything negative to say about the US. I am really exasperated by the all or nothing mentality/culture of the US, and a lot of this world. It is possible to have conflicting feelings about the same thing/issue and/or it is possible to dislike certain aspects of something but overall like it. I think the rigidity of you’re with us or against us or you like it all or don’t like it at all is really unhealthy.

Anyhoozy, I’ve thought a lot over the years about the first amendment. With the Hobby Lobby ruling earlier this week and the fact that the USA’s birthday is here, it seems very apropos to mull over my thoughts on one of the main hallmarks on which this country was built: the first amendment.

To be perfectly clear, the first amendment is incredibly important to individuals. In addition, I am not a lawyer and I am not all-knowing on US history. But to me, it seems like many people are confused as to what exactly freedom of speech means and/or use it as an excuse to say awful things. But according to the legal experts, freedom of speech was created so that Americans could express themselves without government intervention. Now that’s a good thing and immensely important. My thought is that as this amendment was made at the end of the revolution, Americans wanted to avoid recreating what they viewed as the tyrannical British government from which they had just escaped. And to be able to question the government without consequence is a good thing. It is important to be able to say “hey what this leader did is not okay” so we don’t end up living in an oligarchy or something. But somehow that has morphed into the average Americans steadfast belief in their right to spew hateful words about entire groups of people as well as individuals and if someone calls them out on that, they use freedom of speech as a defense and see it as some sort of protection against accountability for their words.

Now I think it is one thing for everyone to be entitled to their own opinion. I believe in that. But it is an entirely different matter to use freedom of speech as an excuse to say hateful things that oppress others and/or as an excuse to impose personal beliefs on others. Furthermore telling someone you think what they are saying is wrong is also just a form of freedom of speech, right? And so shouldn’t people be able to call out others on their hateful words without having that thrown back in their face with the excuse of “freedom of speech”? I mean as this blogger says freedom of speech goes both ways. So if I am talking with someone and they say something horrible about LGBTQ folks and I say “Hey that’s not cool” and they say “freedom of speech” and I say “Yeah freedom of speech right back at ya!” (for the record, the conversation would go JUST LIKE THAT). Anyways, the conversation would likely then come to a halt. Because the issue isn’t really about freedom of speech. It is about two people expressing their opinions and one of them stating concern (and rightly so!) that what the other is saying is harmful. That is what this is about. It is about someone saying things that have negative, concrete consequences and the questioning of their words is a form of holding them accountable.

I can think of an example from my personal life. Unfortunately and embarrassingly when I was a teenager, I used the word “retard” often. A friend of mine one day told me that a boy in our grade with Down Syndrome was really hurt whenever someone used the word as an insult. I felt horrible. OF COURSE I had not intended to hurt this boy’s feelings. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had and that I was adding to the discrimination against people with developmental disabilities. So I chose to stop using the word. Did I have a right to keep using it? I mean, I guess. But should I have kept using it? For me, it was more important to create a safer and more comfortable educational experience for my classmate. I mean, didn’t he have the right to that? And who was really oppressed in this situation? Was it me, because I couldn’t say one insulting word, even though there are so many other ways I can express myself? Or was it this guy in my grade whose reality is shaped by a culture which doesn’t support or value individuals with developmental disabilities? I mean, c’mon, freedom of speech is important but even my 17 year-old self recognized that there may be more important things in life than my “right” to use the word “retard.” It’s not like there weren’t other ways for me to say what I needed to say. If I thought something was a bad idea then instead of saying “that’s retarded”, couldn’t I just say “that’s a bad idea”?

When you think of freedom of speech, I encourage you to recognize this amendment covers many situations and not all of them are equal so think about what is really important. My own personal way of looking at this is to think of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion as being on a continuum and sometimes someone’s right to safety, dignity and comfort trumps my “right” to use certain language. For me other people’s well-being is more important than certain choice vocabulary. I mean, we’re all adults and we can chose to say hurtful things that could traumatize and oppress others… But why the heck would anyone want to do that?!  Also there are laws against hate speech and yet I read people writing awful things about people of color and women and others and then hiding behind freedom of speech. I am not sure it works that way. Not to again mention that the first amendment was meant to protect against government intervention. I have read comments from people who are upset about a deleted post on some online message board and believe that this is a freedom of speech violation. But freedom of speech actually protects us from government repercussion, not from private entities. So actually message boards etc (provided they are private) can in fact delete offensive words.

Now after my last post that may seem hypocritical. After all in my last post, I was discussing how questionable it is for private corporations to deny access to affordable birth control to its employees. I am sure some people will write me off as a liberal who thinks people can say what they want unless it’s not what I believe. Not so fast buddy! I have a politically diverse range of friends, family and colleagues. Some of my loved ones are very conservative and they let me know it. Maybe we sometimes discuss our differing viewpoints. But they don’t judge me for being liberal and they don’t try to impose their beliefs on me. Nor do they use degrading language to discuss people with opposing views. And I am not going to make my loved ones feel bad about their beliefs or degrade them or impose my beliefs on them. That’s not my place.

It all goes back to the continuum. And to me there is a big difference between denying people “the right” to use certain language on one Internet forum versus denying someone access to medical care that could impact someone’s entire life. And if you can’t see the difference, I’m unsure what to say other than the fact that social issues are complex and layered and overarching rigid laws aren’t always realistic.

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2 Responses to Pop references to freedom of speech: entitled to or just entitled?

  1. Well said, Izzy! And thanks for the link to my blog!

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