The Only Kind of Speech That Needs to Be Protected

August 15, 2012

We live in sensitive times.hate-speech-is-not-free-speech

Seriously, everyone is really sensitive to everything.  Every time you turn around, someone is hurt or offended, or they’re “denouncing” or “calling for an apology” from someone else.  Words like “hateful” are batted back and forth constantly.

Sure, we say we believe in free speech.  But we don’t really believe it.

Take Dan Cathy’s comments for example.  A bunch of people called them “hurtful” and “hateful.”  He was condemned and criticized.  Every so often, you can bet that a Robertson or a Piper or a Driscoll or a Phelps or someone else will test our beliefs in free speech.

The problem is, as we work to silence our opponents, we’re really taking our own rights away.

Not Easily Offended Enough

The fundamental problem with our cushy, modern culture is not that we’re too sensitive or too easily offended.

It’s that we aren’t sensitive and offended at the right things.

Most of us lead lives of relative comfort and safety.  If you are reading this, it means you have access to the internet, which means you don’t have a million little disadvantages that others do.

And in this relative comfort, free of mortal suffering, we look for things to suffer from.  We take it upon ourselves to suffer from the words of others, the way starving people suffer from hunger.  We dramatically hurl ourselves on the pyre like a bunch of martyrs, burning in our righteous indignation.

If only the real suffering of the world offended us the same way.  Extreme poverty, child slavery and sex trafficking should offend us the way we let our egos be offended every day.  If we were offended by things that are actually offensive, we wouldn’t have any more offense left.

A Culture of Bullies

I”ve said before that I think political parties come down to whose freedoms you want to restrict, other than your own.  Neither one is a party of “freedom.”  See, we believe in free speech, as long as it’s our speech that’s free, and no one else’s.  We want our opponents silenced.  We demand an apology.

This is the irony of a culture so obsessed with eradicating bullying.

We are becoming a culture of bullies.

We push and shove everyone who looks at us wrong or disagrees with us or insults us, as if the insult really mattered.  We demand they be silenced.  We do the adult version of giving someone a “swirly.”  We slander and insult into our opponents are cowed into submission.

Incidents like the theater shooting in Colorado or the temple shooting in Wisconsin aren’t symptoms of gun laws that are too loose.  They are symptoms of a culture of small-minded bullies, who can’t stand that other people think, behave, speak or worship differently. Tighten gun laws, and these things will still happen, because we allow ourselves to get whipped into a frenzy nearly every day over the words someone else said.

The Only Kind of Speech That Needs Protecting

We talk a lot about protecting “freedom of speech.”  We feel our freedom being chipped away, bit by bit.

But what kind of speech needs protecting?

No one is trying to restrict your right to send a card to your grandmother, or sing “happy birthday” to your kids.  No one is offended by that.

The only kind of speech that needs protecting is the offensive kind.

When people say things that we think are hurtful and offensive, we get riled up, and demand that they recant, apologize, shut up and pay the price.  It is the offensive speech that is constantly attacked.

The problem is, the standard of words like “offensive” or “hate speech” is completely fluid.  It only takes one crybaby for someone to be labeled “offensive.”  So while we’re constantly working to silence our opponents on one side, we feel our rights being chipped away on the other.  That’s because we’re holding the hammer and chisel.

The next time someone says something disgusting, offensive, hurtful, we who are offended should be defending them the loudest.  We should not be demanding their silence or their apology.  We should demand that their right to hurt our feelings and insult our beliefs be protected.

If we don’t, we may find that one day, we are the ones being silenced by someone who calls us “offensive.”  Isn’t the truth of the gospel the most offensive thing someone can say?

What do you think?  Is it our job to make sure our opponents are silenced, or to give them a microphone?  Or should we just get thicker skin?

21 responses to The Only Kind of Speech That Needs to Be Protected

  1. Both my radio and my tv set have these little black buttons. One for on, the other for off. Those buttons handle all offensive materials on the dial.

  2. In the 50’s and 60’s conservative colleges regularly invited liberal speakers to their campuses.

    Today, conservative speakers need armed guards at colleges and universities, that is when they are even (rarely) invited.

    It seems one side of the spectrum is ok with free speech, and the other really has a problem with it.

    • I would totally agree that it feels that way. Maybe there are just some venues people should not be expected to be invited. You see what I mean then – we live in a culture that preaches tolerance, but we can’t really stand it at all. We shout people down, bully them, destroy them.

    • I tended to feel that one side is ok with free speech and dissenting opinions and the other is not, too, until the CFA brouhaha. I am liberal-ish and I have a good friend who is quite conservative. She and I both expressed our opiniions about Mr. Cathy’s words and both of us felt the backlash of speaking out – she from liberals, me from both liberals and conservatives. I admit that I perceived conservatives as more closed-minded and intolerant than I did liberals – but now I see that it’s easy for all of us, regardless of our stance, to settle into a group mentality where the opinions of those who agree with us are fine but anyone who disagrees is wrong.

    • No, Steve, I think it’s more like both sides pretend to love free speech until someone else’s free speech rubs them the wrong way.

      For every example of liberal wackiness you can name I’ve probably got something in my inbox from some good Christian relative up in arms about how their faith is in danger of being stifled by Kathy Griffin or Starbucks or Glee or something.

      I kind of wish BOTH sides would quit trying to make themselves out to be poor persecuted little martyrs. Buy what (or not) whatever you want, listen to whoever you want, have whatever opinions you want—just quit turning everything into a dang federal case.

  3. When it comes to public free speech, then venues are created to be divisive. The filtering of facts, the editing of sound bites, dramatic outrage, name calling and narrow reporting only create the divisiveness that is now called offense. Media picks their stories based on agendas.

    Did you know that Congress passed the “Farm Bill” that Obama was campaigning to the farmers about? It was in the Senate waiting for them to take it up.

    How many reports do we get that say so and so was murdered with an illegal gun, or unlicensed gunman? None! It is just reported as a shooting.

    Why did C-f-A get called out when the CEO of Amazon did the same thing? Why was C-F-A boycotted when people buy gasoline all day long from countries that put gays to death? The answer is the media.

    It’s a drama playing out to sway public opinion. Little of it is based on fact. Sad.

    Because I care about politics, I like to talk about it. I have not met one person who has looked at public voting records, which are facts. Not one in the last 3 presidential elections! They want to discuss some pundits version of a candidate or their parties platform. Their view of a track record is filtered, spun and slanted whether it is the right or the left.

    I don’t care about apologies. I don’t care what stand people take, but I would like it to be based on facts. I love free speech.

  4. I like what you said about how we “should” be offended by the injustice in the world- poverty, human trafficking, etc. What would it look like to be “offended” by those things?

  5. Thicker skin. I don’t want to hand someone a microphone with which to amplify what offends or upsets, but I don’t want to muzzle them, either.

    I suppose part of the outrage about some words, like Mr. Cathy’s, is because our words often lead to actions and actions that hurt another are never ok. We are afraid of the consequences words may incite and I think that is something we should keep in mind when we speak.

    But we would do well to remember the old rhyme:

    Sticks and stones
    may break my bones
    but words will never hurt me.

  6. This stuff doesn’t bother me. If I disagree with someone and I start to argue, tear them down, bully them back, I recall the voice of my mother saying “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    So I remove myself, leave it be I don’t care that much. I think you nailed it with “we are offended by the wrong things.” I lived in an activism heavy town and watched people look for things to be outraged by on a daily basis.

    If you would’ve told me ten years ago that a chicken sandwich would be the symbol of the biggest controversy of 2012, I would have laughed….and I still do.

  7. I agree that the nature of “hate” speech is fluid and often whatever is politically expedient.

    For example, 6 months ago President Obama supported marriage between a man and a woman and to many folks he was a great president. Now he changed his opinion, and anyone who shared his former view is hateful. So one man changes his mind, and now everyone who does not change with him is a “bigot.”

    It does not get any more “fluid” than that.

    Great post. Well written.

  8. Ugh. To be honest, I’ve seen this crap debated so many times that it’s kind of getting tiresome.

    In my mind, this is something that should be a no-brainer–

    —-Private citizens, including those that are CEOs of multi-million dollar companies, talk radio personalities, or whatever, have the right to say any damn fool thing they want. That’s free speech.

    —-Private citizens also have the right to gripe, boycott, protest, write annoying Facebook posts, and whine to their hairdressers when any of the above people says something that ticks them off. Radio stations also have the right to pull things off the air when it looks like a show might hurt their bottom line, and advertisers have the right pull funding from ventures that might lose them money. That’s STILL free speech. Actually, it’s also that free market thing that everybody seems to love so much.

    —-Call me crazy, but while nothing will get rid of white supremacists or other basket cases that decide to go on murder sprees, is it such a terrible notion to make it a LITTLE LESS easy for them to get hold of freaking assault weapons? Maybe that’s just me.

  9. Hear! Hear! *applause*

  10. Thank you for this, Matt.

    The ridiculous backlash to Dan Cathy’s statements has been astounding.

    “we aren’t sensitive and offended at the right things.” – AMEN!!

    The culture of bullies and political correctness escalates every issue as though anyone who disagrees w/ anyone else is Adolf Hitler reincarnate. “Disagree with” does not equal “hate”.

  11. A friend of mine linked this article on Facebook. I have to admit I’m a bit confused. Are you saying that we should praise (or at least ignore) people who say things that are “disgusting, offensive, hurtful”? If so, I disagree. When someone says something disgusting about me or someone incapable of defending themselves, I think we SHOULD stand up to that and disagree. If you’re just talking about government intervention, then I understand, it’s not the role of government to control offensive speech. But this post seems to be talking about what people should do in the face of speech that is offensive. Don’t we have an obligation to stand up to those who are trying to harm us or others who can’t defend themselves? I suppose we could disagree about what is harmful, but that seems to be a different discussion and not really about free speech at all.

    • I think most people have a very low threshold for what is “hurtful” speech. When was the last time you were actually harmed by the words of someone else? As citizens, yeah, we have the freedom, even the duty to disagree with hurtful people. But when we start crying to the government to silence our enemies, we start down a slippery slope that will be impossible to stop.

      • Ah, OK. So you see two problems. One is that people are saying something is hurtful when it’s really not hurtful (in your opinion). The second problem is that people are trying to use government (sue? make a new law?) to bar people from saying certain things.

        I do believe words can be harmful when they are used to shame someone else, especially when those words come from someone in authority such as a parent, teacher, employer, etc. Words are also harmful if they are used to incite others to take action to physically or verbally abuse someone, when they are used to claim something untrue about someone, when they are used to separate someone out for some characteristic (religion, race, orientation, disability) and disparage the person.

        Depending on the severity of the words and the context, it may be appropriate for the government to step in. In most cases though, it is appropriate for citizens to step in and say, “You shouldn’t say that because you are being hurtful.”

        Here’s the thing. It’s not effective to essentially cry wolf and say something is hurtful when it isn’t. By the same token it’s not effective to say to someone who was hurt that they really weren’t. Both are problems because they are untrue.