It’s sad and shocking but even free speech has become a divisive issue in America. In this Boomer Opinion piece from Glendale, California, writer Bill Cushing asks, Has free speech gone too far?
I’m worried about the “thought police.”
Baby boomers, I always assumed, fought for the right of free expression. As a writer, I focus on that right pretty intensely— and not just the Constitutional aspects. I cast a wider net. I see “censorship” moving beyond law into social suppression of speech through ridicule, shaming, or other ad hominem formats.
Here’s one alarming example: a recent CATO Institute study proclaimed that “Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share.”
The study states that “nearly two-thirds of Americans— 62%— say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive” and that “50% of strong liberals support firing Trump donors; 36% of strong conservatives support firing Biden donors.” While those on the right might maintain that those numbers verify they’re statistically more tolerant than the political left, that is still over one-third— nothing to brag about.
It seems that keeping one’s job might now depend on one’s choice of bumper sticker (or hat, or nowadays, the design on one’s face mask).
Social media platforms provide people a fairly extended voice, encompassing what was once called “online shaming,” a practice more recently labeled “cancel culture,” well achieved by “doxing,” which means publicizing someone’s otherwise private information.
One problem with using social media for achieving an end is that the “standards”— never-ending and ever-expanding— eventually consume their own practitioners.
Examples are numerous, varied, and easily found for those willing, so I feel no obligation to do so here.
Suffice it to say these electronic pathways are more brutal than any scarlet letter and would’ve made Puritans jealous.
I chose that metaphor intentionally.
I understand limited (very limited) forms of censorship. Parents of minors should exert some control over their children, but after that, the only acceptable form of censorship I see is self-censorship, the self-discipline of “time and place” inherent in Ecclesiastes.
The point is that suppression of opinions— no matter how distasteful to some— is anathema to a free society. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize-winning Letters from Burma noted that “to view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault [its] very foundation.”
Bear in mind that allowing speech differs from supporting it. Letting racists, homophobes, or Neo-Nazis speak isn’t endorsing their sentiments or ideals, but it is endorsing an openness to ideas not necessarily your own.
Actually, there’s a tremendous upside in allowing people freedom to express their opinions, thoughts, or feeling, no matter how distasteful or repugnant: it exposes stupidity more efficiently. If people are barred from speaking their minds, others might never know what garbage was brewing for years. Or decades.
Allowing others to speak plainly affords others the chance to challenge such ideas (although often an exercise in futility) or at least to become aware of them. And then depart.
However, let me get back to the original question: Has free speech gone too far?
I vote an emphatic “NO,” based on George Orwell’s quote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”
Bill’s book of poems is, “A Former Life.”