We all have to earn free speech

I don’t like this feeling. I don’t like being scared of my friends.nospeech_fullsize

A long time ago, I heard the stories of Anita Hill. I wasn’t really political at the time, so I’m going to tell it the way it appeared to me, through the lens of the broadcast news. As near as I could tell, a judge had made sexual jokes and advances to a woman who wasn’t interested. She didn’t call him on it, because he was her boss or something. Instead, it just sat there.

Then, when he was nominated a Supreme Court Justice, the story got out, and made a public scandal. Some said her complaints were politically motivated, and others said she was a victim who was too scared to speak up. She brought up a new version of crime that was based solely on innuendo and suggestion. The main thrust of this sin was not in the expressed intent of the speaker, but rather in the intent perceived by the listener.

In the end, she was left as the punchline for a new term “politically correct.”

Being politically correct meant saying safe things, rather than taking the chance of offending. It wasn’t about sexism, racism, or any form of discrimination. This was a push against the sometimes unconscious commentary that can be interpreted as offensive. This was hate crime thinking, and it was considered a logical progression of our need to protect ourselves from all forms of abuse.

Bill Maher had a show later called “Politically Incorrect.” While the title was tongue-in-cheek, and while it was a comedy show at heart, Mr. Maher was fighting for a valid point. We cannot act against people for the thoughts in their minds or the words on their lips.

Let me say that again. Unless you are creating a clear and present danger, I DO NOT have the right to censor anything you think or say.

That is a fundamental bedrock of freedom. It is older than the Constitution, it is older than the Catholic church. It is at the root of all freedom. If a man is stopped for his thoughts or words, then no one involved is truly free.

Bill Maher’s show was doing well until he took a politically incorrect stance and said of the 9/11 attackers, “Say what you want about it – staying in the airplane – not cowardly.”

Because of this, his show was taken off the air. The show proved its point, and we showed our true colors. As a nation, we proved that there is some speech that, while not inciting violence, we will still stamp out.

Other examples have occurred since then. Just a few weeks ago, a few men were joking with each other, with sexual innuendoes about computer hardware. A woman heard them and, being offended by the jokes, turned Twitter on them. One of the men lost his job, the woman lost her job. The Internet, her chosen weapon, turned on her and threatened rape and death. This is how far we have gone from freedom.

A few days ago, Hugh Howey wrote a blog post about the cheerleaders of legacy publishing, and how angry they made him. He referred to the cheerleader as a “Bitch”, a “Demon”, and other terms. He talked about his fantasy of getting an award, seeing her in the audience, and grabbing his crotch.

He was not inciting to riot. He was not calling for action against her. But once again, the Internet had its way with him, and in the name of sensitivity, painted him as a monster. He apologized and, when that wasn’t enough, took the post down.

Now, if you search for the original post, you will see bloggers saying, “That’s not nearly enough.” There is no penitence great enough to cover for offending someone online.

I didn’t want to write this. I felt strongly about it, and I ranted privately about it, but I didn’t want to say anything publicly. When my wife asked why, I said, “I don’t want them to come after me too.” I knew there were lots of people who were still angry about this, and lacking a valid target, might well see me as a very small, easy mark to attack. I don’t have the kind of following that can survive an attack by the Internet. I don’t want to lose my fans, my friends, my job. I don’t want to be painted as a sexist because I supported the right to free speech. I’m too small, and too scared.

She said, “Then write it anyway. Courage isn’t a lack of fear.”

So, yeah. My thoughts, my words, her courage.

But really, please, think about this. If you are offended by something, you absolutely should present an argument against it. The only true defense against bad speech is good speech.

Do not demand apologies. Do not demand litigation. Do not demand anything.

Because if you can take a man’s right to speak, you lose yours.

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  1. Thank you.

    I found his comments puerile and offensive myself. He has succeeded in what I believe was his goal – attention. That alone makes me grit my teeth in frustration.

    But at one point in my life, I took oath and arms to defend his right to say horrible and offensive things. While I never had to actually kill anybody nor was I injured by my service, the same cannot be said for my brothers and sisters in arms. I was very lucky.

    The problem with free speech is now and has always been that in order to defend the right for people with whom you agree, you have to defend those with whom you do not.

    In a certain sense, the root is entitlement. People – because they have free speech – feel entitled to tell others what they should believe. They feel entitled to enforce those beliefs against any and all threats. They lose sight of the reality of freedom.

    “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

    And with the freedom of speech, we need to remember:

    “Your right to say it does not obligate me to hear it.”

    Howey has a bully pulpit of privilege. He used it in an offensive manner. He’s a product of the culture. These are not explanations or excuses but simple statements.

    I would hope for better from an artist who comments on the human condition. I would wish that fathers raised their boys better. There’s really no defense for this kind of behavior but the reality is that he has a right to be an ass in public.

    We need a better way to respond than pitch forks and torches. I kinda like the Quaker practice of “shunning” myself.

    So thank you for your courage…and for Allie’s wisdom in helping you see it. I hope that others will hear it and understand what you’re saying.

    I’ll stand with you.

  2. It’s amazing how easily people get offended at things these days. It seems like people actively seek out ways to be offended. It’s easier to just let our freedom of speech be eroded than fight to protect it.
    I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.
    — Voltaire