COVID-19 has shaken my thoughts about free speech, a basic tenet of American democracy. I am no less a fierce proponent. How could I feel less committed as a former journalist and weekly contributor to the Spy outlets?
When I think, however, about the inability for family members to be with dying family members during the pandemic, to express their love and solace, I think that free speech has suffered health-mandated censorship. I understand the reasoning. I disdain the results.
Grieving is a necessary part of life. “Last words” are intrinsic to the finality of death. The living treasure those end-of-life conversations, even if one-sided. Words matter when time is short, when death hovers ever so near, as the loved one’s breathing becomes increasingly more labored.
When I think about George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” hideously ignored by the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, I realize that Derek Chauvin stomped upon Floyd’s free speech and life. Chauvin’s personal and professional animus fatally blocked his ability to listen to a person grasping for help.
Free speech is open to misinterpretation. Words don’t matter if you disagree and fail to listen. If your humanity is repressed, as seemed to be the case with Officer Chauvin, a person’s free speech is meaningless. In this case, so is life.
Protests, both peaceful and violent, represent free speech. Peaceful demonstrations, abetted by signs and voices of advocacy, may block streets and annoy folks inconvenienced by closed roads. They are tolerated as civil acts of disagreement.
On the other hand, violent protests that involve property damage and personal injury to bystanders and store owners are illegal. In this instance, free speech bucks up against standards of acceptable behavior. Police reaction is necessary in a way that hopefully doesn’t cause escalation and possible death.
When violence accompanies free speech, then all of us must divine the causes. Are protesters justifiably angry? If so, why? Do they distrust the police? If so, why? Do all of us take the time to understand the roots of unlawful civil disobedience?
Over the years, I’ve heard derisive criticism of “political correctness,” as defined by words and actions that bespeak supposedly overreaching concern about free speech. If a person wants to utter a sexist or racist remark or joke, critics wonder rhetorically, “so what?”
Here’s where my opinions may seem contradictory. While I applaud free speech, even when it’s hurtful and spiteful, I believe the impact is crucial. Does free speech allow me to use inflammatory words that create a hostile environment? Damn it, the words and feelings are mine and I’m entitled to express them, right?
Free speech calls for “moderation.” Because I can say something hurtful, doesn’t mean I should. Thoughtful use of words underpins freedom of speech.
Speech-driven interaction demands caring about, and compassion for the other person. Otherwise, derogatory and degrading discourse poisons dialogue and impedes decent relationships. Barriers rise; friendship suffers.
Social media these days offer a large dosage of distasteful words and opinions. Free speech becomes deliberate distortion and nefarious manipulation.
We all know that Russia’s shrewd, deceptive use of Facebook during the 2016 presidential election to sow distrust of American political figures exemplified our free speech gone awry. We are open and receptive to differing opinions; foreign countries consider this a weakness to be exploited.
An essay on free speech is fraught. Many may disagree with my thoughts concerning moderation. I hope those who do will use their free speech to respond.
Civilly and enthusiastically.