Our First Amendment Rights, Or….Freedom Ain’t Pretty

Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Freedom is not pretty.”

He probably wasn’t the first one to say it, either. He’s right, though – freedom is not pretty at all. It’s ugly, chaotic, tumultuous, and allows the worst of people to be on the exact same level as the best of them. Oh, and it allows many different opinions and lifestyles to coexist, no matter how uncomfortable or disgusted they make other people.

Free is not the ideal state of existence for anyone who wants everyone else to think and act just like them.

The potential ugliness of freedom is most visible when freedom of speech is exercised. Maybe because that’s the freedom we are most likely to run up against in our every day lives, or because words have such an emotional impact on us, our true dedication to the principles of freedom are tested when others say things we don’t want to hear.

The internet has, I think, increased our exposure to ugly ideas, thoughts, sentiments, and words. Sometimes, honestly now, we seek them out as a way to confirm our own ugly thoughts. Sometimes we stumble across them – words that stun, shock, or really, really hurt.

The comments sections of news sites and blogs are prime examples. I know of a paper (not the first one, either) that has recently disabled its comments section temporarily. I really can commiserate, considering the types of comments to which its  readers were regularly subjected.

For a newspaper, staunch protectors of our First Amendment rights, to close off a communication channel – well, you know things had to be bad. And they really were. I don’t understand how people can be so hateful to people they don’t even know. I mean, I could be pretty mean in my younger days, but at least I was mean to people based on their individual merits!

Just a couple of examples of things I read over the past year, starting with the mild:

  • An article about the death of a young man, in which someone asked repeatedly in the comments section whether anyone knew if he’d been saved. His aunt finally said that he was, thank goodness. I mean, nice sentiment and all, but a little late now, don’tcha think? And if he hadn’t been, what grief would the family be reminded of?
  • Another double-murder and suicide, in which people took the opportunity to completely trash and tear apart the victims and their family. Acquaintances three states away were shocked and hurt, not to mention closer friends and family members.
  • Pictures of a dance recital, after which someone commented about how the girls would grow up to be sluts because of all the makeup they were wearing.
  • A commenter, claiming to have access to hospital records because of his or her job, listing the alleged past injuries of a child reported as injured in a fall and accusing the parents (named in the article) of abuse.
  • And, of course, race, race, race – racial epithets and slurs from all sides, that I won’t even go into here. Let me just say – an insult in an insult no matter how you creatively spell it; leave everyone’s mothers out of it; if you’re that scared and intimidated, just avoid the public altogether – especially the public that has to read your filth.

However, I realize that many of the things I have to say are probably offensive or at least disturbing to many people. I believe that I say my piece with decorum, logic, and respect, but there’s no accounting for taste (as Granny says). And I don’t want to be silenced because others misinterpret or just plain don’t like what I have to say.

So, where’s the line? I really don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this, and all I can come up with are relevant points – but no ultimate conclusion yet. Here’s what I’ve got so far, though:

  • One argument in favor of allowing potentially offensive speech is that if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to read or listen to it. However – if you don’t know what you are going to find, why should you be expected to suffer because you didn’t know to avoid it?
  • The First Amendment protects us from infringement by the government, not each other.
  • Of all people, journalists seem to be the most likely to protect speech. However, journalists have a standard of ethics to follow that requires them to be (ideally) honest, thorough, and knowledgeable. I don’t see that they have an obligation to allow comments from people who subscribe to no such ethics as well.
  • When extremists are so loud, rude and obnoxious, regular or reasonable people are run off from the discussion. This gives a false perception that extremists exist in larger numbers than they actually do, simply because they are the only ones talking. Therefore, the right of others to express their opinions is curbed out of fear, anger, or embarrassment, leading to unofficial and peer-led censorship.
  • Related point to the one above, from an economic development view – If a company or organization is considering locating to a certain area, but the impression it gets of the citizens comes from the aforementioned extremists, the opportunity becomes less likely. However, curbing dialogue for “the good of the city” is a bad precedent and the thought leads to all kinds of nightmare scenarios involving FBI agents and bare-bulbed holding cells.
  • I want to be able to say anything I want to, so I have to let other people say their stuff as well.
  • Language used to create false divides, to hurt others, or to simply be hateful is disgusting, sinful, and intolerable. However, it is also ignorant and ridiculous, and should not be given even the acknowledgment of importance implied by response or censorship.

I just finished celebrating freedom of speech during Banned Books Week, even in my last two blog posts, so I find it pretty crazy that I am having to actually think about my stance on this issue.

Then again, as I found when reading through the banned book list, I do firmly believe that no one should be forced to read anything. Or that children should have easy access to sexual material. So I do have limits, distant as they are. Who am I to judge that anyone else’s limits are less reasonable than mine?

One issue I see with news site and blog comments that may contribute to the uglier use of our beautiful freedoms is the anonymity. I personally allow anonymous comments on my blog, and I have had no trouble so far. Of course, I seldom write about individuals, so the potential for damaging another is minimal. I have thick skin.

(Which is why I interrupt my flow here to state that I really, truly want to know your thoughts on this topic. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of good arguments, and I really don’t know my own mind here. Use a false name if you want.)

For a newspaper or news site, however, anonymity may provide too much license for juvenile behavior. If people had to actually sign up to comment, giving a full name and verified e-mail address (at a minimum) and creating an account that could be disabled, perhaps their behavior would be more checked. Plenty of other websites do that, and it means you have to really be interested in order to participate. Plus, you have to be honest about who you are.

It wouldn’t completely stop anything, and my opinion of what is acceptable is not the same as another’s is. Still, too many people will do in the dark what they are not willing to do in the light. If people have to stand in the sun and accept responsibility for what they say and do, perhaps they will act more responsibly.

And if someone takes offense, tracks the commenter down, and beats him up on his own front porch, well, that was the chance the commenter took when he dared say something so stupid.

After all, the ultimate freedom is the freedom to accept the consequences of our own actions.

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~ by gypsyjonga on October 6, 2009.

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