“What Can We Say?”

Free Speech In The 21st Century

This is an unpublished devotion that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

What can we say in a free society? Are we free to say whatever we wish, whenever we wish, and wherever we wish? Or must the words that we say or sing, the words that we write or the images we create confirm to a set of standards and rules created and determined by society, even if we do not know what those standards or rules might be?

May we use expressions and phases that demean or insult others?

Are we free to exercise our right to free speech without having to accept the responsibilities that come with exercising that right? Are we responsible for if people to take action that result in the destruction of property or the death of individuals after hearing or reading our words?

Is it even possible for one to advocate change in a way that does not result in the violence, death, or destruction?

The answer to this last question is most certainly “yes” but it requires more than just getting up in front of an audience and saying what one thinks. For any words written or spoken or images created to have an impact, there must be an understanding of the people listening, reading, or looking as well as an understanding of what ones has created. Free speech is more than just the right to speak; it is the opportunity to change the world.

For me, free speech in all its forms (with the possible exception of money) is a right granted and guaranteed by citizenship in a free and open society. But when one accepts the rights of citizenship, one also accepts the responsibilities that come with those rights. The right of free speech does not give one, for the lack of a better term, carte blanche to say whatever one feels like saying.

I firmly believe that speech, in any form, which instills fear or incites violence is morally wrong. And words which demean or degrade any individual or individuals threaten all people by encouraging the creation of inequality and division.

And while it may be morally wrong in a free and open society for such speech to take place, it remains the right of any individual to exercise his or her right to free speech. The French philosopher Voltaire, as expressed by the author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The foundation of this country, going back to the days before the American Revolution, is not just in the sense that free speech was a right but that all, not just a few, were entitled to those rights. When John Adams, the first Vice-President and second President of this country, was still a lawyer in Boston and leading the movement towards separation from Great Britain, he took on the task of defending the British soldiers accused of murdering civilians in what has become known as the “Boston Massacre.” While his sympathies may have been more in line with those who were injured and killed, he also believed that the soldiers had the same rights as well and that, in a democracy, in a free and open society, those rights were protected as well. If we do not understand this crucial point that every person is entitled to the same rights as everyone else, then we will never understand what it means to have the right to free speech.

So while some forms of free speech may offend; they also challenge people to respond. One problem in today’s society is that we do not sufficiently challenge those who use words to demean or degrade, who use words which instill fear or incite violence. We do not call on those speakers to accept the responsibility for what they have done; in fact, society has become such that such words are encouraged.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for those who oppose the ideas or thoughts of one speaker is to present a counter-proposal, to refute the ideas that they oppose without resorting to the negative.

Consider how the legendary basketball coach John Wooden swore. As many of his players will tell you, he never used a cuss word or swore; rather, he would say “Good gracious, sake’s alive!” and get his point across.

There are times, perhaps, when anger overwhelms the words we want to say but there can never be a time when anger or hatred are the motivation for what we wish to say. Society becomes limited and closed when words of anger, hatred, and inequality become the normal rather than the exception. When words that demean or deride are used in common speech, it implies an acceptance of an inequality between the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the artist and the viewer.

A society which seeks to ban or limit free speech because it seeks a sense of equality is no better than the society which allows inequality in the first place. Such societies cannot survive because their resources are directed towards the maintenance of the status quo and the present instead of looking to the future, beyond the edge, and being more creative.

A free and open society, one in which people can engage in free speech, is characterized by an openness rather than a hierarchy, an ability to take risks rather maintain the status quo, and a desire to seek innovation over settling for the tried and true.
If we limit our creativity, we cannot expect to learn. Thinking skills cannot be developed in an environment where free thought, through free speech, is limited.
There are those who would seek to limit free speech, especially in the classroom, because they feel that it encourages disrespect for authority. If we think about it, however, the use of free speech requires a certain degree of discipline that will not allow for disrespect.

It has to be understood from the beginning that the contributions of all members of the group are acceptable provided they are within the boundaries of the shared information of the group. One may not introduce an idea that does fit within the framework of the discussion. All members of the group must understand that everyone’s contribution is equal.

Let us understand that there is some basic information which has to be taught on an acceptance basis. Every subject has to have a set of shared key assumptions that allow the group a basis from which to begin. There are, within the framework of the discussion, certain specialized concepts and ideas from which to organize information and data. 2 and 2 will always be 4 in every number base higher than base 5 but everyone in the group must understand this before proceeding. If the concept in question is not completely and totally understood, then one cannot proceed until it that occurs (this does change the way we see education today).

The challenge, thus, is for the instructor/teacher to show why it is accepted and what one can do with that information. Teaching at higher levels of thought require the learner to interact with the teacher and this requires respect from both parties.

We must begin by seeing that the learning process is not a top-down model, where the teacher/instructor passes down information to the student/learner who will in turn pass this information onto the next generaion. Rather, it is a two-way interaction between teacher, who know becomes a mentor, and the student/learning. Learning in this model is an interactive process, with a shared point of view, that is, the pursuit of a common goal from a common framework.

This framework consists of a set of shared goals and objectives which can be questioned by all involved in the learning process. It leads to questions about the nature of the issue being studied and allows for alternative interpretations of that shared information and data. (This goes back to the beginning of the process where the information is gathered and studied.)

It can be readily seen that such an approach is a multi-cultural approach because it demands an understanding of many different viewpoints. We live on a planet of many cultures and movement into the future cannot occur if one is not aware of the cultures of other peoples. We cannot realisticaly move into the future when we do not understand how other cultures work; our own society’s history shows the failure of such mono-cultural approaches.

Those who oppose free speech or insist that their viewpoint is the only one that need to know seek a closed, unequal society, in which opportunities and limited and a vision of the future, if it exists, is either limited or lacking.

A society which believes in free speech becomes an open creative society, one in which each individual has many opportunities.

The hallmark of a free and open society is its willingness to allow its citizens the right to exercise their right to free speech. And the citizens of such a free and open society understand that they take on the responsibility of leading the change that they individually advocate in their exercise of that right.

What can we say in a free and open society? Ultimately we can say anything we want but we have to understand that, if we do not understand the meaning of our words, what is said can prevent society’s movement to the future. But if we think about what we say and understand what it is we say, then those words can serve as the springboard to the future.


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