Knotty Problem

March 7, 2011

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Why is it important to protect loathsome speech? No question it’s natural to want some people to just shut up. Nobody enjoys being subject to loathsomeness, or simple stupidity for that matter. As Americans we’ve made it constitutional to protect both loathsome and stupid speech.  But stupid speech is usually just annoying and must be tolerated in free societies in order to keep them free. But in such free societies loathsome speech must also be put up with. No better example of why can be found in recent events in Pakistan.

Writer Mohammed Hanif of The Guardian reports of the murder in Pakistan of Governor Salmaan Taseer. Salmaan Taseer was a reform politician. Reform is not welcome in religious circles in Pakistan. As Hanif says, “… religious scholars in Pakistan told us that since common people don’t know enough about religion they should leave it to those who do – basically anyone with a beard (a cleric).” Given that Governor Taseer was killed by a policeman for not clamming up it’s understandable that religious scholars have temporarily gotten their way. As Hanif suggests, people threatened with murder by authorities will often shut up. Unsurprisingly most Pakistanis muzzled themselves rather than risk being iced by a mullah-primed acolyte. So, it should be apparent that in a free society government must not be allowed to suppress speech that (for instance) the religious find offensive.

For a little down-home historical perspective we should remember that the right to be loathsome and/or idiotic in speech is an American tradition. There was Father Coughlin in the 1930’s, Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s, and we have Glenn Beck today. What’s more the Klu Klux Klan had the unchallenged national edge in the hate-group department for many years. But now the Westboro Baptist Church is vying for the Klan’s Most-Loathsome-Speech record. The church has been picketing military funerals shouting epithets and waving signs that say things like “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” and “God hates You.”  How they happen know that God hates whomever they say God hates is a little murky. Yet murky or not they’re just following typical religious conviction regarding knowledge of what god thinks —Westboro Church is not completely out of the mainstream in this. Their recent history aside, what has put Westboro Church in the news lately is the Supreme Court’s ruling that the church’s speech, though offensive,  is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

But it’s one thing to say something is legal and another to think it inspired, sensible, or acceptable. In an Oscar competition between the Klan and the Church Westboro would win the Best Idiot Script Writer award hands down (at least for reasons of current relevancy). Their acceptance speech would probably make my ears bleed: “We want to thank our parents for their loving hate and guidance in leading us down the road to lunacy. And, of course, there’s God, our ultimate inspiration in ruthless self-righteousness. Knowing that “God Hates You!” is self-affirming for us. The Lord who so profoundly despises has graced us with a blindness more profound than that of the devil himself (praise God!). And thanks, of course, to the Republican right without whose code-word ridden rhetoric this award would not have been politically feasible.”

And so it goes, Kurt Vonnegut would have said. Freedom of speech demands tolerance of even the repulsive speech of the rationally and compassionately crippled. When it comes to the Westboro Baptist Church we just have to suck it up to be constitutionally consistent; it’s one of the down-sides of free and open societies.

But can’t we have a more nuanced national speech policy? Can’t we just stifle the speech of the utterly wacky? Surely we can write laws to shut up the spiritually void. Sure we can, but who would write them? Who would define acceptability? What political faction would codify legal speech guidelines –liberals, conservatives, Tea Party, libertarians? Whose religious doctrines would ordain what’s offensive and what’s not –Muslims, Christians, Scientologists, Animists? Would we recruit the Pope, Tom Cruise? Would we appoint Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachman, or Nancy Polosi? What about Barack Obama or Sean Hannity? Who would determine what acceptable speech is?

It’s a knotty problem. Better to let any lunatic without a brain get on his or her soapbox, spew and let the people judge the love or loathability of their remarks —although even free and open speech has its pitfalls. It took mere ruthless (but expert) oratory for a German maniac of the 20th century to light a fuse that set the world on fire. Free speech does not necessarily mean “without cost”.

As I said, it’s a knotty problem. If you figure it out let me know which option makes most sense: suppression or expression. I lean heavily toward the latter, but when you’ve got a major media star successfully pandering and peddling the AntiChrist in prime-time . . . well, it’s enough to make you take pot shots at your principles.

by Jim Culleny
March 7, 2011

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