So first, I wanted to suggest that the First Amendment, guaranteeing the freedom of speech, was originally about protecting people who risked speaking and who provoked by virtue of their speaking while nowadays, it’s more about protecting what people say—people who provoke by what they say. I thought if we could point to a shift from protecting someone to protecting something, that would surely be huge!
It appears, though, as a matter of historical fact, that our freedom of speech has always done both—protected people and what they say.
Then I wondered if we might make a distinction between a freedom protected and a freedom abused? between a surprising freedom gratefully received and an assumed freedom taken for granted and exploited? Because (here’s the thing—here’s my agenda), I really—really want to differentiate between those who speak and need to be heard, and those who speak and need to be ignored.
These days, with so many spewing out a vile combination of toxic hatred, simplistic scapegoating, blatantly catering to the most base of emotions in carefully planned but thoughtless self-promotion, it seems like the defense of our freedom all too often means defending those who abuse that freedom. And that is part of the price we pay. I get that. Okay. But can we at least name it the abuse of that freedom and not its celebration?
Of course, that’s the way it’s always been. Who doesn’t think, “Let’s call those saying what I agree with appropriate, and those spouting off what I think is despicable, inappropriate.” Freedom may very well simply mean that everyone deals with the frustration of thinking others are abusing it while they themselves defend and celebrate it. Thomas Jefferson said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” My paraphrase: The degree to which you are free to publicly advocate wrong testifies to the freedom we assume reason will always safely assess.”
Of course, I don’t trust how much reason there is out there to combat all the error advocated. That assumption of reason has always been one of the weak spots of democracy—made all the weaker by the competitive nature of our media and the subsequent need to “sell the story.”
So here’s what I feel the need to say—not even directed to anyone in particular today—or directed at all too many to specify any one. You may ignore it or apply it to whomever you feel the need to address it (including me!). “I fully support your right to believe that, but utterly reject what I can but name the arrogance that would lead you to think your experience and perspective should be applied to me or to others, let alone be held to be universally true.”