Free Speech, Fear, and Consequences

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 theΒ 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.



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at For more information on her children's books, please visit
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15 thoughts on “Free Speech, Fear, and Consequences”

  1. I agree with you. Exercising the freedom of speech entails responsible use of it. Nowadays, many people get emboldened by the idea that they can hide behind their user names while lambasting people to kingdom come. We can always agree to disagree as the cliche’ goes.

    This reminds me of an event that occurred several moons ago. I know you haven’t forgotten too. The last time I happened to stumble on their site, it was gone. Their brand was exactly what you are talking about here – irresponsible use of the freedom of speech.

    1. Jen, what happened to your Gravatar? (Until you get one, I’m going to have to manually approve your comments – meaning that if I don’t, it got lost somewhere in the spam.)

      I know the site whereof you speak! And you’re right – much as they would cry if someone criticized them or they felt their free speech was threatened, they would happily intimidate others into silence. That’s not freedom of speech, and they were bullies. And karma, apparently, bit ’em in the butt. I’m not sorry about that.

      As Tiffany points out, there may be some values worth risking it all for. Human rights, for example. But on those topics where most of us could “agree to disagree” – or better yet, might reach some happy win-win compromise if only we UNDERSTOOD each other’s needs and concerns more fully – shutting down communication is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and intimidation or threat of ridicule or loss of one’s livelihood really does ROB them of their right to free speech.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Free Speech, Fear, and ConsequencesMy Profile

  2. I definitely agree that a small but vocal faction of America goes far too crazy every time someone makes a single comment that they find offensive, and that we should reserve the mass backlash for the things that really matter. I also agree that it’s good to air ideas, good and bad, and discuss them like thinking adults.

    I do think it’s worth pointing out, though, that those voicing unpopular views have always put themselves at risk by doing so, and have willingly accepted that risk as agents of social change. The civil rights movement, of course, springs to mind. The willingness of people to risk social standing, livelihood, even their lives to speak up for what they strongly believed in is at the root of a lot of positive change.

    1. That just says how vitally important some of those ideas are. They shouldn’t all feel that way, though – see my reply to Jena Isle. If we value freedom of speech, we should value it enough to ensure that everyone feels reasonably safe in speaking up. They may be wrong, or misinformed, or have worries and concerns we don’t fully understand – and we’ll never be able to negotiate a win-win outcome or a better community if we have people sulking in silence or silencing themselves out of fear.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Free Speech, Fear, and ConsequencesMy Profile

    1. Jan, I never consign anyone to under the porch for their ideas. It wasn’t the ideas expressed, it was the swearing at others who disagreed, and it was hardly punitive – no one lost their home, their job, the food from their table, or their standing in the community. Let’s not think of it as “under the porch,” but rather, sent to the sunny side yard so conversation in the salon could remain peaceful. πŸ™‚
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…To My Dad, on Father’s DayMy Profile

      1. Thanks! Yes, I don’t unfriend friends easily. I may block them so they can’t continue to be hurtful to other friends, but that doesn’t mean I’ve unfriended them. I just can’t referee every discussion 24/7. I have to trust that people can do that for themselves. I think, though, that we can all benefit from the occasional break and the solitude of the great outdoors. πŸ™‚
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…Free Speech, Fear, and ConsequencesMy Profile

  3. Wonderful stuff Holly, on this topic, we are on the same crusade. Sadly the rise in the ease and speed of communication thanks to technology, has hastened the decline of good manners, respect for other opinions and the art of debate.

    I can never resist stirring the pot a little. As a former resident of a completely different society to those of North America, it does concern me that there is a certain arrogance in assuming that North American views of what is strange, reprehensible or unacceptable are always correct.

    What is considered normal, acceptable, fair, moral or good for mankind here may not be views shared by millions of people in other parts of the world.

    With the benefit of hindsight, we know that slavery, denying women the vote, persecution of homosexuals, dog and cock fighting were all wrong and reprehensible.

    At the time however, they were considered normal practice by huge numbers of people and accepted as the way things were.

    Different parts of the world are on different paths and time scales on the journey to democracy. The assumption by the West,that their transitions should be short, direct and with the same result as ours, has in part led to the chaos and largely, failure of the “Arab Spring”
    Peter Wright recently posted…6 core values for achieving goalsMy Profile

    1. I agree with you that we sometimes have blinders on when it comes to what’s right for people of other cultures and ethnicities. I do believe some things ought to be universal human rights. It’s pretty simple, from my perspective: If you believe something is YOUR right, then it is my right and every other human’s right, as well. Privileges should never be based on immutable characteristics. And laws should govern our intersections and interactions – if my actions can’t hurt you, then they’re none of your business and should not be subject to your laws. No one has the right to go through life utterly unoffended, but no one has the right to taunt, harass, and deliberately pick on or bully others. If you’re saying that it’s right that it should take a long time for people to recognize that human beings have equal rights and equal dignity – that it’s okay for it to take centuries to come to the realization that certain “normal practices” like slavery, denying women the vote (or worse, treating them like chattel or abusing them with impunity), persecuting ANYONE for who and what they were born as – I have to disagree. While it may be a reality, it’s NOT an excuse.

      The “Arab Spring” is an irony that’s lost on certain politicians here. And I believe that, with the exception of defending our own borders, and rendering humanitarian aid where absolutely necessary and effective, we ought to focus on resolving our own issues at home before telling anyone else, anywhere, how to resolve theirs. The best way to effect change is to set a shining example that others WANT to follow.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Free Speech, Fear, and ConsequencesMy Profile

      1. Again Holly, I agree with you, deplorable customs, activities and forms of discrimination are not an excuse for them to be continued, they are however realities in many parts of the world.

        I used them as examples to show that even in our “enlightened” Western world very bad things were considered acceptable and normal not that long ago.

        I also agree with your last paragraph with the proviso that regrettably, sometimes the world needs a superpower to act as a policeman. For all its foreign policy faults and past mistakes, I would rather that policeman wear an American uniform than a Chinese or Russian one.
        Peter Wright recently posted…6 core values for achieving goalsMy Profile

      2. Yes, it’s been proven too many times that sometimes the world does need a policeman. I’d rather they wear multiple hats and agree with one another – but yes, if it came right down to it, of course I’d rather they be wearing American hats than Chinese or Russian hats (largely for exactly the reasons stated here – governments that don’t respect their citizens’ right to speak out against their own governments tend to be pretty brutal when wielding the baton, and have a great capacity for censoring that from the world, unlike here – when we’re brutal everyone hears about it and has a chance to express their outrage).

        I don’t believe there’s a nation on earth governed by only people who are honest, incorruptible, and devoid of hypocrisy. And while that might be the ideal, it might also prove their downfall – given the human animal’s capacity for deceit and duplicity. I’m not sure that people who are so virtuous are capable, always, of dealing with those who are not, because they can’t always anticipate the clever ways men devise to be awful to one another.

        I think maybe this is why communism only works on a very small scale – say, within a family or a kibbutz or a co-op, where members (at least the adult members) can, in reality and without undue hardship, choose to leave and join other forms of community. And where members choose to be there and MAKE it work, in the first place. The underlying idea isn’t bad, it’s just not really in concert with human nature, on a large scale. It works best when everyone genuinely gives a rat’s whiskers about everyone else in the group. And I think that’s the lure, isn’t it? Many people would love to live in a society where everyone truly cared about everyone else, and pulled together to ensure that everyone’s needs were taken care of. But it just doesn’t work that way. I do, sometimes, think it’s a little funny how opposed Christian people are to the concept of communism, though. In its ideal form, wouldn’t that be “love thy neighbor” put into practice? πŸ™‚ I sometimes wish I loved my neighbor better, but I’m pretty sure I like him better in a mixed economy.

  4. Well, you know my beliefs on this one, and it’s funny because it seems we both had kind of the same topic idea around the same time, though I told a story. lol

    The problem isn’t just that people have differences in beliefs. If that was the only issue then I’d be agreeing with you. What happens is that one side or the other invariably crosses that line of decorum and at that point all bets are off. From my perspective, once it’s personal there’s going to be some symbolic pimp slapping; in the vernacular I’m somewhat familiar with, “don’t start none, won’t be none.”

    Unfortunately these are different times. Politics has shown us that for the most part one party will say inflammatory things then falsely apologize for it or say their words were taken out of context. I know you don’t like when I talk about using politically correct language but if one doesn’t wish to go that route… consequences will ensue, and I do know the meaning of the word.
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