A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Freedom of Speech, Yes... But to What End?

I'm a big fan of freedom of speech. In fact, I err on the side of freedom of speech over against other considerations. A while ago in a post I sided with the Supreme Court in its recent rejection of campaign finance law limiting the political expressions of corporations. Based on the comments responding to my position, I was clearly in the minority, but I still stand by what claim. Why? Simply because once we start limiting speech because we say, "You guys have too much money!" at some point we will be telling other groups that they cannot speak because they are Jewish or Christian or because they do not have the right education to be informed or perhaps because they know certain people and therefore their views are suspect. So, I am a big fan of free speech even though I find more than a little of that speech to be reprehensible.

But one of the things that must be asked when it comes to free speech is to what end is the speech free? When the Founders guaranteed the right to free speech their purpose was to protect the expression of unpopular ideas. It should be obvious that popular convictions do not need protection. The end of such freedom was to allow for the free exchange of ideas that the commonwealth might become a better place. They wanted to guarantee minority points of view because they knew that unpopular convictions could be right, and they understood well that tyranny can result not only from a monarchy, but also from a majority.

What more than a few fail to understand is that free speech was not considered to be an end in and of itself, but that it was a means to an end. So when a celebrity stands on stage during an awards show dropping the "F" word all over place publicly to display his right to free speech, he fails to understand to what end his speech is free. Yes, it may be true that he has the right to embarrass himself in speaking so profanely, but what noble purpose can his words possibly serve?

A pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, had cancelled plans to burn a Qur'an tomorrow on the anniversary of 9/11, but has now decided only to suspend its burning contingent on whether the "Ground Zero" mosque is relocated. He wants to send a wake up call to Americans that all of Islam is of the Devil. In the United States he has every right to so express himself; but the question I would ask him is to what end is his freedom of expression taking us? Does Jones seriously think that in burning Islam's holy book that somehow all of a sudden Americans will come to their senses and see Islam his way? Does Jones really believe that he is going to win converts with his exercise of free expression? Has he considered that perhaps his actions will have the opposite effect?

In the United States all speech is free, but not all speech is created equal. We are fortunate enough to be able to express our views on the deepest and most significant questions and concerns of our existence. The downside is that we are also forced to endure individual expressions of stupidity, laced with profanity and hatred as well.

So, tomorrow we might witness what is guaranteed in our society-- the freedom to express oneself. But to what end? One that will not be helpful to be sure. Indeed, what we will experience tomorrow in the flames of a Qur'an, should Pastor Jones go through with it, is one more expression of profanity.

And it will take place in the name of freedom and in honor of stupidity.

Stupid is as stupid does.


PamBG said...

As you say, what is key here is the idea that just because something is a constitutional right does not make it a moral good or the best possible way of behaving. Many people these days seem to think that freedom of speech (or even freedom itself) is the highest moral goods we can achieve. It is not. But we, as a society have chosen to take the risks of freedom so we can have it's benefits.

I have absolutely no problem in stating that I defend Jones' right to free speech while using my own freedom of speech to declare that I believe his current and proposed actions are unethical, immoral and against God. It is a case study in how fear turns to hatred and how The Evil One can use our fears to make us believe we are doing good.

Robert Cornwall said...

Freedom of speech is an important right, but for it to work effectively, it must be accompanied by a bit of common sense and responsibility.

Mr. Jones has every right to do this, but it both lacks common sense and is obviously contrary to the idea of being a responsible citizen.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, one of the great hazards in an overly legal and litigious society like the U.S. is that what is legal is too often equated with what is moral. How often do we hear people justify questionable behavior by saying, "It's all perfectly legal."

I would prefer we embrace the idea that the law is a modest helper at best. Such a view would see the limits of the law, where it can assist and where it cannot. Unfortunately, in our society too many think the law is indeed the be all and end all, which is why whenever a group wants their way on something, they either push for a new law or seek legal action to have the law interpreted their way.

It's good to have you commenting again! I have missed reading your insights.

Chuck Tackett said...

You three have all hit on the important point that freedom isn't free. That cliche is usually used in connection with military service and sacrifice but it also requires the duty and responsibility of the speaker to act appropriately.

But what is appropriate / moral in a relativist society? Allan, you talk about how law is confused with morality and I agree. I further believe that in many ways we have replaced the church with the government.

This has happened because many dislike the church and its teaching, using the government to advance their own beliefs. These same people are greatly distressed however, when a person of faith tries to do the same thing.

It has also happened because the church has delegated its duty and responsibility to care for the least in our society because the challenges seem to be too great.

Also, the media has grabbed this one oddball pastor in Florida and made an international issue out of it. Is that a responsible exercise of the freedom guaranteed to the press? I say no. But it sells!

Thanks Allan.