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, actually—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 itself is a barrier; it helps reinforce barriers. Rudeness has permeated 2016 while freedom of speech has been abridged.
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 being that I personally 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, these individuals are considered at a bare minimum to be dangerously “rude.” Impolite, even. And yet they have gone ahead and written these things, or photographed 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. They are often fighting to change their nation. 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 towards enhancing understanding, removing barriers that separate us, or improving anyone’s lot in life. It is merely bullying, and with a corporate (whichever television network the person is appearing on) microphone, to boot.
True freedom of speech is freedom from bullying not the freedom to bully. Prepositions are powerful.
I am a disabled man, still capable of walking but whose gait sometimes (okay, often … uh, well, almost always) resembles that of a drunk who is trying to cover up the fact that he is drunk. (How ironic, no?) I can and I 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 for every human being. It is not freedom of speech to insult someone who is not present and then 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 for the right to re-erect barriers of misunderstanding.
As 2016 has unfolded, I have come to realize that my desire for barriers to come down, my growing ambition to respect other peoples’ fight for self-understanding, my work to lend my small voice to the cry for justice has me in the minority in America. Barriers are being built, others that were already there are being made taller, those who fear difference are forcing their fears on others and into public policy, into law. I dread what I will learn in 2017.
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Some of this first appeared more than a year ago.
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