Boomer Opinion: Has free speech gone too far?

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.

Bill Cushing

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.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

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.”

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Bill’s book of poems is, “A Former Life.”

5 Comments

  1. Any writer that uses an Orwell quote about the times we are living in is OK with me! And I am with Bill: free speech also shows the incredible amount of stupidity out there. And no political party has the corner on the stupid market. It proves my theory: the sum of the intelligence on the planet is fixed and the population is growing!

    The media has accelerated the polarization of “news” reporting for ratings and viewers. I am sure Walter Cronkite is spinning in his grave when he sees the 24/7 editorializing that passes for journalism these days. I believe we need a free press, don’t get me wrong. But, we need a free press that actually examines all sides of an issue.

    No one political party has the moral high ground: our Congress has become a home for post-economic (read that wealthy and in a different reality), professional politicians who are disconnected from real life and have precious little concern for those they represent. Both sides of the aisle. The founding fathers envisioned true representative government (with checks and balances…ahem) where regular people would serve in Congress and then return to private life.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but we have to keep listening and dealing with the issues that are important to our health, financial security and safety, and hold accountable those elected to represent the people; not their own power.

    And keep the conversations going…freely without filters.

  2. I read (skimmed, really) through the CATO study and it’s “spot on” (Thanks Eric), but I wish they had made an attempt to differentiate between liberals and leftists. They are not the same by far. Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote that his attitude was “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Biographer’s words, not Voltaire) That attitude is emblematic of liberalism; look at any dictionary or encyclopedia definition of it. The leftists choke on this concept and cannot accept (are triggered by) any speech they disagree with.

  3. Bill, I just spotted a Ricky Gervais story on Reason.com you should like, “Comedian Ricky Gervais Rips Cancel Culture”

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