REFLECTION: When did we confuse freedom of speech with the freedom to be rude?

Joan Chittister, osbby Joan Chittister, osb
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

I’ve written or spoken a good many times about the incivility that unmonitored social media sites have generated in this country. Someplace along the line we have managed to confuse freedom of speech with the freedom to be rude, crude, mean, hurtful or brutal — anonymously. Secretly. Behind some silly moniker like “Darth Vader 2.” Or worse.

I grew up in a society where there were some words that were never spoken — in front of women, in front of children, in public, at a dinner table, in a professional setting, on a telecommunications program of any kind. But then, little by little, we began to see it painted on back walls of old buildings. And did nothing. Then we began to accept it in teenage music. And did nothing. Then it showed up in racy “literature.” And we did nothing. Finally, it was everywhere on the streets. And now, it seems, there is very little we can do about it at all.

Where did we lose the idea that freedom of speech is the right to have our speech protected, no matter what our opinion might be? That does not, however, include the right to libel, slander, and now bully people into submission. It does not include a license to abuse someone — meaning to call names or threaten harm or talk or harass those who are different than we are. Physically, socially, or politically. There are statutes against it. So much for the law. So much for our birthright. So much for the character of the nation. So much for our vaunted ideals of democracy.

Obviously, given the increase in the amount of outright lies or veiled insults in the public airwaves now, the threat of the law does not really much restrain an anonymous population, let alone educate it to a more civilized kind of communication. Those websites that employ monitors with the right to reject that level of so-called “comments” manage to maintain a higher standard of conversation and insight. But for smaller groups with fewer resources, the ability to engage that kind of monitor is more likely to threaten the existence of the website itself than it is to eliminate the problem...

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