Freedom of speech. It’s hard for me to imagine living in a world where that’s not considered a human right. By free speech, I don’t mean “the right to lie,” or “the right to deceive others.” I don’t mean “the right to bully” or “the right to swear at” others. Free speech, to me, means that ideas are encouraged and shared – the obviously good and popular, side by side with the smaller, quieter voices – some of which remind us that what’s “good and popular” isn’t moral or right.
Naturally, some of the ideas – laid out in full sunlight – will appear ill-considered, twisted, or just plain evil. Ideally, it makes us think and it keeps the ill-considered, twisted, or just plain evil from festering under the front porch – it puts those ideas right out there where we can all see that they exist. Where those who believe in them see that the rest of us are appalled, certainly. Maybe, if we can coax them out from under the porch, we can expose them to better ideas – and the better ideas and the light will make the ill-considered, twisted, and evil ones shrivel and die.
Ideally. We know it won’t always happen that way, but we can’t even begin to do battle with an idea that is festering in secret under the porch, or hiding in fear from the light.
If we respond to every dissenting opinion with calls for firing or publicly humiliating the individuals who hold them, we just drive them back under the porch to fester some more. We hurt their spouses and kids – people who may not agree with a word that came out of those folks’ mouths, and who may have a better shot and changing their way of thinking than any public shaming or calls for firing would ever have.
Don’t misunderstand me – by “public shaming,” I mean digging up every stupid mistake a person may have made over the last couple of decades and going on an Internet campaign to humiliate and degrade them as human beings. Their current “bad ideas” are fair game, and ought to be vigorously debated – even ridiculed (the ideas, not the person). But we don’t need to assume everyone who holds some reprehensible idea is utterly irredeemable and ought to be written off, ostracized from the human race, and made so miserable they want to jump off a cliff. Each person is a product of their upbringing, influenced by the views of their parents, their schools, their community, and the world at large. Human beings are capable of amazing growth and change when exposed to better ideas and new information. Particularly when it’s done with compassion and kindness.
The Internet, on the other hand, is unforgiving; when it is bent on collectively destroying someone, there is no “apology” that can undo its character assassination. That’s just bullying. It drives the bad ideas back under the porch, but doesn’t eradicate them. Sometimes, they even garner sympathy from compassionate people who don’t share them – but who feel terribly, terribly sorry for the victims of the bullying.
What if those folks with their hateful, awful ideas were in the majority and their views were considered “good and popular”? What if we could be fired from our jobs for saying, “I support marriage equality”? Or publicly shamed and ridiculed for saying, “Women deserve equal pay for equal work!”?
This is why it troubles me when people talk about free speech having consequences. They often show that they don’t know the meaning of consequences, or how far reaching those can be. If you doubt that, read about Hamza Kashgari.
Actions rightfully have consequences, but anything that puts people in fear of losing their lives for speaking up is wrong. People should not fear of losing their livelihoods, their homes, their means of putting food on the table, simply because they opened their mouths and expressed an unpopular – even “reprehensible” – view, unless they are our elected representatives in government, or hold positions of authority over us (they still need to eat, but not on the taxpayer’s dime). To me, it’s the difference between someone saying “I think gay marriage is an abomination” and someone funding hate groups that support killing gays. As long as there’s free speech, there’s hope for a meeting of the minds. Maybe not full agreement on every issue, but there’s hope. There’s room for growth, change, and compromise. There’s opportunity for restitution and the righting of wrongs.
Without free speech, there are some really ugly things seething and festering under the porch. I’m afraid to look under there in the dark.