On Free Speech

8 10 2006

So, since Katie Couric’s controversial Free Speech segment on CBS, I’ve been giving some thought on free speech and exactly what that means.

Everyone has opinions, and everyone has the right to make their opinions known, no matter what those opinions are. So yes, you’re allowed to claim that Sesame Chicken is what the Greeks meant by ‘ambrosia’ and that the amount of Sesame Chicken one consumes is proportional to how cool one is.

See what I’m saying? It doesn’t matter how ridiculous your opinion is – you have the right to have it and express it.

But can you imagine a world in which we turn on the news and hear nothing but people expressing that opinion or those equally absurd? I think on a national arena like CBS news, those opinions that should be aired are informed opinions. That is why I did not appreciate Mr. Rouhrbough’s address. If every opinion as baseless and hateful as his was aired, there wouldn’t be time for anything else.

So yes, that’s an example of free speech. I do think, however, that CBS needs to re-analyze what it considers ‘news worthy’.

Informed opinions are what make society possible. We couldn’t have a proper society if everyone believed that lopping off your neighbor’s head was good luck.

I’m as big of fan of free speech as the next guy, but I think it too often gets used to defend ridiculous claims. It puts up a wall around speech where you can’t argue with it. Free speech is great, but it isn’t to be placed on a pedestal. Speech in this manor is not worth having. Speech without debate is nothing but an exercise in frivolity.

On a national scale we need to have the kind of free speech that is both informed and open for debate. It reminds me of one of my greatest pet peeves of religion is that the second you start debating religion with most religious people they get offended – how dare you question their faith. If one has an opinion one should be able to defend it – and accept that by either a successful defense or an unsuccessful one, you learn and your opinions become even more informed. Free speech is becoming like that. The second someone starts criticizing what another has said under the auspices of ‘free speech’ there is an outrage that you attack someone for exercising their constitutional rights.

Please please try to understand that it is not the person’s ability to say what they think that we are attacking, it is what they think. If you are willing to make a claim you should be both willing and able to back it up. Period. End of story.

Example? Let’s take Couric’s free speech segment. Here’s an excerpt from the last comment on the piece.

I may not agree with everyone I hear. I may hate the rhetoric that someone is spouting. But this is America. Every person is entitled to say what he or she believes. That’s what makes this a wonderful country. That is what you celebrate every night. Stick to your guns! (figuratively speaking only, of course)

Posted by lstitt at 01:34 PM : Oct 06, 2006

David Sedaris tells a great story where he points out that on daytime TV people get the most applause for saying things that are ridiculously obvious – the thing is that they say them in a defiant and righteous tone – almost making it sound as if they are taking a stand against all of those who think different.

This reminded me of that story. “God damn it, this is America, and people have the right to say what they want!”. No shit.

Here’s another comment excerpt:

As Voltaire said, “I may disagree with what you say, but shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.” This however, seems to be an epitaph rather than a rallying cry in this country today. I give CBS News credit for allowing Mr. Rohrbough’s views. If you do not agree with them, that is your right too, but belittling and degrading his viewpoint is a public censorship that should not be tolerated in a free society.

What these comments all have in common is that they are as unapologetically off topic as was Mr. Rohrbough’s statement. In stead of defending the content of his speech they are defending his right to make it. No one is debating his right to say whatever he wants. That does not mean however that we should not be allowed to criticize his ideas.

What I’m saying is that even the most feckless of individuals should realize that unless they’re willing to defend what they have to say, it is not worth saying.

Oh, and that Sesame Chicken thing . . . totally true.




One response

8 10 2006

Several thoughts, in descending order of relevance.

Free speech: Totally agree. Somehow people have decided that free speech equals consequence-free speech. Sure, the law says that the government can’t stop you from saying what you want. But CBS is not the government (I hope) and they can control the speech, judge the speech, and evaluate the speech anyway they want. And I can criticize, lambaste, or celebrate what is said in any way I want. I am not attacking free speech by criticizing what is said by others. And I am not arrogant if I have strong opinions (as one of your commenters alleged). I think it is part of this whole belief that decent itself is harmful to others, or to the country as a whole. People simply don’t want to participate in debate any more complex than an opinion poll.

Right vs. Left: I hate that all debate now divides itself down that line. It feels like someone somewhere picked teams for all opinions (abortion=right, recycling=left, peace=left, security=right) and announced that everyone had to choose. And now that we are all safely slotted into one side or the other, we all just engage in taunts to both rally our own troops and to enrage the other side. No one is really interested anymore in solving any problem. We are just fighting over every news story, trying to pick which side is helped more by the latest scandal. No one really wants to stop school shootings, no one wants to prevent senators from engaging in illegal actions, they just want to tell us why it proves that their side was right all along. I hate it. I can’t talk about the news anymore, or maybe there just isn’t news anymore. It’s just all politics.

Christian entitlement: I am just forever amazed at the notion that Christians in America are entitled to an entire country that shares their beliefs. As a Jew in America, I come to expect that what ever it is I value or believe or want for my own life will not be shared by others. It is my job to carve out a space in my life for my faith. Events don’t stop because of my holidays, my symbols are always called weird, and any time I celebrate a holiday or observe a custom I have to either explain it or hide it. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy discussing my faith but I have to admit that there are times when it is tiring. It would be so much easier if no store ever sold pork, and premieres didn’t happen on Friday nights, and meetings were never planned on holidays.

But in some ways I think that that struggle makes my faith more meaningful. If I have to struggle to be Jewish then my faith has to be worth fighting for. I am responsible for maintaining my faith. No one is doing it for me. If a TV show is objectionable, I turn it off. If music is offensive, I don’t listen to it. Why do Christians feel that their religion deserves protection while everyone else of faith has had to learn how to make their own path?

The answer you hear from Christians on this one is that the founders were Christian, therefore Christianity should have superiority. Well the founders were also misogynistic slave holders. Does that mean that all school teachers should be required to be members of the KKK and the Free Masons? Or can we all just agree that times change and that we have to change with them.

There are tens of thousands of people who face so many obstacles to observing their own faith. I simply can’t understand why Christians suddenly feel like they, and they alone, own this idea of persecution. I just want to say to them, “Welcome to the fucking party, you’re late by a few thousand years. Now shut-up and muddle through like the rest of us.”

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