i am the lizard king, said the gecko freely What is Free Speech?


Irregular Times is a place of strong opinions. In these articles, we don't hesitate to disagree with others' opinions, and we almost never hesitate to say why. Predictably, people write back who strongly disagree. That's great; there's nothing better than a good fight about ideas (as long as there are actually some ideas in there).

A whole lot of the time, though, we get comments from folks who complain that by strenuously disagreeing with some group we are "persecuting" or "bashing" that group. Eventually, most of these comments wind their way around to "free speech": when we write articles contending that some public figure's actions or expressions are wrong, the argument goes, we are "censoring" them and denying them the right to "free speech."

Free Speech for Me But Not For Thee

There's this mistaken notion out there that "free speech" means that you get to say whatever stupid nonsense you like and nobody gets to call you on it. By this line of reasoning, if we strenuously disagree with you about something you've written, we're "censoring" or "persecuting" or "bashing" you, or restricting your First Amendment right to free speech. Well, hogwash! Free speech certainly means that people we consider to be wrongheaded get to say stupid, nasty things, but it also means that any person or group of persons (like the Congress) can use their own free speech to call their ideas stupid.

Words such as "censor," "bash" and "persecute" applied to highly opinionated articles display a galling lack of historical perspective. Literally speaking, censors in history have been those who remove ideas from the public sphere by blacking out passages, burning books or prohibiting the free distribution of written ideas. Writing an opinionated article adds to, not subtracts from, the cumulated public expression of ideas. Bashing is literally a violent act taken against a person -- in recent times, the word has re-entered our lexicon in the phrase "gay bashing," a practice in which openly gay and lesbian people are beaten or killed. Just a few months ago, a student at the University of Arizona was stabbed in the back just for being gay. Sticks, stones, clubs and daggers bash; words alone do not. Persecution is an old favorite tactic of religious and political zealots throughout history, involving splinters in fingernails, electrocution, tarring and feathering, and being burned alive at the stake. Verbal disagreement, no matter how strenuous, never comes close to persecution.

Ironically, some authoritarians in our own country use the very same term, "rights," in their attempts to disenfranchise others of their right to free speech. A recent favorite of mine is an argument used by a "Conservative Union" at a local university. The student government there is proposing that same-sex unions be allowed in the non-denominational university chapel. The well-funded Conservative Union has taken out multiple full-page ads declaring that the same-sex initiative "takes away our right to religious expression." Let's get this straight (poor choice of words), shall we? Conservative students' right to expression seems to include the ability to restrict others' access to a common public space, while same-sex couples' right of expression doesn't seem to include a publicly spoken commitment of love. Does anyone else see the bizarre contradiction here?

Inclusion and Respect

Returning to the writings on Irregular Jonathan Speaks, the comments that refer to our supposed attacks on free speech sometimes suggest an alternative, most often called "inclusion." The kind of "inclusion" these folks talk about is the acceptance of all beliefs as if no one belief was any better than another. Another version of the appeal to "inclusion" is the appeal to "respect"; we must, the argument goes, respect all opinions as equally valid. Therefore, the argument goes, it is wrong to attack someone's beliefs.

We contend that this kind of "inclusion" or "respect" is so broad that it is essentially meaningless. Allow me to suggest that there are more careful and meaningful ways to think about "inclusion" and "respect." We wholeheartedly respect the right of people we consider wrongheaded to make wrongheaded remarks. That doesn't mean we necessarily respect their remarks. Inclusion in the community of those holding the civil right of free speech is open to all people and all groups, even hateful groups like Aryan Nations. Inclusion in the domain of our esteem is not.

The right to free speech is not a right to say anything as long as it doesn't strike anyone the wrong way. The right to free speech is not a right to write any essay as long as it doesn't disagree with others' sensibilities. The right to free speech is a right to expression, even though it may disparage the expressions of others.

We reserve the right to add our voices to the chorus that says people who bomb synagogues and ban interracial dating are hateful. We reserve the right to share our opinion that when the leadership of the Republican Party refuses to stand up and denounce bigotry (as it has refused to do for decades), it is stupid and wrongheaded. We reserve the right to assert that modern fundamentalist Christianity is oh-so-conveniently selective in its use of scripture to condemn homosexuality but not to condemn usury (interest-bearing loans).

The beauty of this whole "free speech" thing is that you have the same right reserved for you to argue that we're off our rockers, and to lay out your own argument as carefully or sloppily as you wish. This is where the beauty of the Internet resides: without editors blocking the doorway to the distribution of expression, you are free to post your thoughts and others are free to disagree with or ignore them.

return to irregulartimes.comOur last word to those who cry out "censored" or "persecuted" or "free speech" is this: don't censor yourself! Use your free speech to argue back. Be bold, be assertive, show us we're wrong, lay out an argument, satirize our point of view, expose the gaping holes in our logic, demonstrate our galling lack of knowledge, tell us how you feel about it, call us idiots, call us fools! Just don't try to shove anybody's ideas into the dark and quiet closet of false agreement. Frank, assertive and open debate is the seedbed of a vibrant civic culture. Silence is its poison.




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