Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech

In an ideal world, there would be no need for the phrase, “In an ideal world.”

We do not reside in an ideal world.

I am not a philosophical absolutist regarding free speech. Perhaps this is an intellectual wimpishness on my part. Okay, I am a wimp. Much as I want to say that nothing ought to be off-limits in humor, much as I might salute someone for walking an edge between political correctness and rudeness, I recognize rudeness as a form of speech that has only a limited place. For me, that place is usually to demand rights from those in authority; thus, it really isn’t rudeness. It is protest and sometimes (well, often) necessary. However, a certain sick, plainspoken rudeness permeates society. It is heard in how men talk about women as they walk past. It is heard in traffic jams. Rudeness is not freedom of speech or humor or anything important; rudeness is not the speech of someone being daring and knocking down the social barriers that separate us. No, rudeness is a barrier; instead, it helps reinforce barriers.

I admire those who fight for the freedom of speech, their own and others’, yet I am also myself a rather polite person and I hate myself the moment I find out that I have offended someone. I am the least daring human I know.

There are individuals around the world who are in prison cells right now, or are being secretly executed right now, because they told the truth about the power arrangements in their nation and told the world that they live in a country that believes in punishing and sometimes killing those who have revealed these things. In their nations, they are considered at a bare minimum to be dangerously “rude.” Impolite. And yet they have gone ahead and written these things or declared these things anyway at the risk of joining the ranks of the punished, joining the silent brigades of the killed.

Freedom of speech demands a high standard. Those who put their lives on the line to defend it usually meet that standard. A television comic or a radio personality or an Internet vlogger who makes fun of people for their appearance or for something we publicly censure as a weakness or for their reputation? How is that freedom of speech? It is freedom and it is a form of speech, but it isn’t doing anything for enhancing understanding, removing barriers that separate us, or improving anyone’s lot in life. It’s just bullying, and with a corporate (whichever television network the person is appearing on) microphone. True freedom of speech is freedom from bullying.

I am a disabled man, still capable of walking but whose gait sometimes (okay, often, erm, always) resembles that of a drunk who is trying to cover up the fact that he is drunk. (How ironic, no?) I can and do joke about this, but you? I would rather you not. I sometimes refer to myself as “Crazy Legs.” I would rather you not.

We live in an era in which justice and self-understanding are perhaps the two essential fights. It is not freedom of speech to insult someone who is not present and turn to the audience and say, “Too soon?” as if that is a punchline. (If you insult someone to their face, like Don Rickles does, that is different. He might call me “Crazy Legs.” I honestly have no idea how I would feel about this.) Comedy punches upward, at the strong, not down at the weak; the fight for freedom of speech is a part of the fight for people understanding one another, not a fight to re-erect barriers of misunderstanding.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 4 asks, “Can anything be funny, or are some things off limits?”

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  1. loisajay · October 4, 2015

    My least favorite feeling is when I silently cringe when I hear something that, possibly, I should not have. Freedom of speech can be a terrible thing. Good post, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rogershipp · October 5, 2015

    “Comedy punches upward, at the strong, not down at the weak” I like that line!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. belinda o · October 5, 2015

    Wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: I’m with the Banned | The Gad About Town

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