Almost-Free Speech

Copyright © by Len Holman, 10/3/12


  There is plenty of free speech around these days.  I mean, there is a lot of mentioning of free speech.  President Obama, at the U. N. made it “perfectly clear” that the values and norms of the U.S. require America to cherish, protect, and advance the cause of, free speech.  But President Morsi of Egypt also mentioned free speech, except for the part where such speech mocks, degrades and insults Islam.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey also thought free speech was a nice concept in theory, but should be restricted if it would lead to violence—read:  disrupting the social order. Turkey has its share of social disruptions, from restive Kurds, to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and one could see where free speech, unbridled and unmonitored, could cause some real, additional, unwanted, problems. Free speech is like that:  disruptive, inimical to an established hierarchy, contagious, and very messy.  That’s why we have so many restrictions on it here in this country, and that’s why we have so many conservatives calling for more restrictions remember George W. Bush’s “free speech zones?”). 

  Unfettered free speech is anathema to the boundaries social institutions set.  We socialize our children (in the family, school, and when they grow up, the workplace) to be silent, keep their questions and comments to themselves, and go along with the program.  Our society does such a good job of this that when a kid in a classroom bursts the bounds of propriety, he (it’s usually a “he” in elementary school), he is punished, and/or given drugs for hyperactivity, and his parents, classmates, and other teachers learn a valuable lesson about saying too much, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and with the wrong words.  All this recent attention comes from the “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-value film production which puts the Prophet, the founder of Islam, in a very bad light.  A riot in Libya ensued, a U.S. ambassador was killed, along with several others, and all political hell broke out here in Presidential Election Land.  Many more riots ensued, more political hell broke out, and America spent a lot of time (much to the disgust of the Hard Right) trying to explain to an Arab world that has absolutely no history or knowledge of free speech, why we can’t just shut down any possible insulting, degrading commentary on Muhammad and Islam.  We have our “Can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowed theater” and the “fighting words” doctrines, of course, but we also have no photos of American troops coming home in coffins; we have the ubiquitous use of the word “heroes” and woe be to anyone in political life who wants to curtail the debasement of that word; we still have certain phrases which MUST be said, as in our President’s mantra at the end of every speech:  “God bless you and God bless the United States of America!”  And we have a new era of LOTS of money being called LOTS of speech. 

  So we turn to the Arab street and say, “We protect speech, but you can’t.”  Free speech is regulated by the social context.  There were things you couldn’t say in 1880 Dodge City, that you could say in a private club in St. Louis.  Those Arab countries must wonder at this nation’s apoplectic fit over a chicken sandwich.  In June, Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, announced he opposed same-sex marriage on “Biblical grounds” and that gay rights advocates were “inviting God’s judgment on our nation,” and the depth of American understanding became known: it is as deep as Sarah Palin’s pronouncements.  Sarah said that “Calling for the boycott had a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights,” and that Cathy was being “crucified” for “having voiced support” for “that cornerstone of all civilizations and religions since the beginning of time.”  Well, Palin, so well-versed in the social, political, and cosmological (“beginning of time???”) history of humankind really nailed it.  What she nailed was that we, as a nation, have no idea what freedom of speech is.  If Dan Cathy can say what he thinks, why can’t protestors say what THEY think?  I mean, speech isn’t free just for one side, no matter what God may think.  Criticizing a statement without breaking the law is, well…what freedom of speech is supposed to allow.  No harm, no foul. 

  If the CEO of a chicken sandwich place is against same-sex marriage and thinks God will visit destruction on American for it (that Sodom and Gomorrah archetype is alive and well, after all these centuries), I might still buy a chicken sandwich from one of the stores and I might not.  But it’s my choice, my opinion, my right to disagree or agree.  If I’m in Cairo, I have to wonder about a country which lectures the world about “rights” but doesn’t seem to even know what those rights are, how to apply them if they DID know what they were, or to who they would apply, other than Muslims half a world away.  It must beggar the imagination of an educated Muslim that God cares who eats chicken.


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