Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The High Cost Of 'Free' Speech

As is often noted, the right to free speech comes at a terrible cost -- to enable us to have our right to say what we will, in a reasonable and measured fashion, we must tolerate those who will have their right to say what they will, even in the most lurid and unseemly fashion. So it is, that we endure the mounting dissension and rising tide of intolerance toward the Islamic religion as we approach the anniversary of September 11th.

This wave of intolerance is not, however, some new strain developed over the issue of Al Qaeda's attack on the Twin Towers, but a mutation of a very old strain, that humanity carries with it everywhere it goes. In America, it can be traced back to a fear of a Catholic President taking orders from the Pope instead of the people. It can be traced further still, to immigrant groups coming to our shores, who would steal jobs from "real" Americans. Back even further, we see it in the fear of the slave being freed, sowing the destruction of the American way of life. We can trace it all the way to the mistrust of the native "savages," original inhabitants of North America, and their weird ways, contrary to the laws of God. And those seeds were brought by the original colonists, fleeing societies that did not want them around, for fear of contamination of their countries. Go back as far as you like in human history, and you can see the seeds planted and the crop of intolerance harvested in full measure in each succeeding generation.

For all the advance of humankind from primitive existence to technological domination of the globe, we continue to carry the seeds and sow them at every turn. It as if we feel we cannot be who we are without them. It is as if the dogma and destruction of the past is part of our DNA, not, as it truly is, a product of fevered imagination, over-hyped fear, and rampant bigotry. To some, there is no point in hoping for a change, because it has always been so. For others, they thrive only in the presence of this bitter crop, and would fight to keep it, to justify their view of the world.

Those who would picket the burials of the honored dead, claiming that we are paying the price for our wickedness, are harvesters of the crop. Those who would burn the Quran to send an incoherent message, are harvesters of the crop. Those who would deny their fellow Americans the right to have affordable health care, are harvesters of the crop. Those who would claim that the free practice of religion is valid only for their 'Christian' religion, are harvesters of the crop. Those who would deny a woman the right to determine what she will do with her body, are harvesters of the crop. Those who would deny same-sex couples the right to enjoy the fruits of lasting love and marriage, are harvesters of the crop.

America has spent decades now, planting a bumper crop of anti-intellectualism, ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. This goes far beyond the crops previously sown and reaped, for in an age when information is king and knowledge is everywhere, the stubborn denial of truth for the blinding light of belief shows no more sophisticated than our brethren two thousand years ago. For all our advances in technology, there have been few advances in community. Even the founding of the American nation did not bring about the salient changes in human behavior that could reasonably be said to have altered us and made us a singular nation. For while our Founding Fathers did their best to construct a foundation upon which to lay a new society, which allowed the individual to be as they are while being part of a larger community, the subsequent building upon that foundation has been haphazard, slapdash, and at time, has required things to be torn down and rebuilt.

Given the freedom to speak, that does not mean what you have to say automatically has value, especially where what you say is grounded in ignorance, and fear, and hatred. What Americans must do, now, is to speak up. The dialog is being monopolized by the narrow-minded and short-sighted; the great bulk of America is not so myopic or xenophobic. Decent people, strong-hearted people, we must rise up to challenge those who would pervert freedom and democracy to further their own self-serving ends, who would shape American traditions and values to prevent all Americans from sharing in the liberty they are guaranteed. Let our voices ring out, and let the true heart of America proclaim that we shall not tolerate intolerance and will not defend ignorance. It is time for the better angels of our nature to take the day.

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