“On the Limits of Free Speech”
Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words cause permanent damage
–Eric Bogosian and Oliver Stone, from Talk Radio
Sometimes free speech is an act of war. Words can be used to destroy other people, to destroy the value of things. And those employing language in this way are certainly terrible people. They want to hurt, they choose to diminish, it is their preference to insult and attack and utterly annihilate whatever their target may be. And you know what? They have every right to do this.
Despite the vagueness of the title and my general desire to remain outside of the topics I choose to discuss, this is one where I cannot help myself. Oh, there will still be a historical examples of the central topic, but I feel the need to be completely open, like when a newscaster reporting a story explains before they speak that they work for the corporation they are saying is being investigated.
I have called myself, politically, a detached anarchist. It has been my notion and my intellectual desire to try and understand points-of-view not shared by me. This is the best way for one to understand the hows and the whys of the world and its conflicts. And sometimes people blame freedom of speech. They want to limit it. They have decided to outlaw words because they are (genuinely) offensive. It is an attempt to legislate thinking, which will always fail. Banning free expression is the easiest way to stoke resentment, to promote the actual hatred that the basic idea was seeking to depose.
The one issue, of all the issues I believe worth fighting for no matter what, is freedom of speech. That includes protections for Nazis and scare-mongers and Devil worshipers and even those lost souls who wish death and destruction upon the world. As I said, attempts to understand opposing viewpoints can take the mysticism away from such hatefulness. If we can learn why a group of teenagers bully a lonely girl or boy and try to talk them into killing themselves, we can use the same free speech to liberate them.
When I was a teacher–high school, English, at terrible schools in a big east coast USA city–I used to let my students say whatever they wanted. I would encourage them to be themselves and find their voices in their writing. I told them to understand what they believed in and to express it however they saw fit. I said, “I don’t care if you write that this book is the worst piece of shit you’ve ever come close to reading. That is a valid critical response. You just need to tell me why.” And they did. Nearly all of them did. It cut through the idea of a teacher’s pet and forced them all to be completely honest. There were no limits. There was no sniveling or pleading. “Say whatever the fuck you want,” I said.
The effect was surprising, and there was a much different atmosphere in my classroom compared to the world of restrictions they entered when they walked outside the door. We were a room of cooperation, of team work, as well as the class most likely to have fights break out.
Some of the teachers I worked with had a very strict idea of education. They were stiff and prudish. They thought that they were teaching ethics and morality, but did not understand contemporary youth culture, so they bored their students. They would teach history of only the positive things, a highlight reel, along with happy messages of how far we’ve come since the bad old days. They would denounce their music (often a fair thing to do–kids usually have terrible taste in music); they would condescendingly correct grammar at any given turn, and the worst thing one could do is swear. The administrations usually agreed with this, going so far, sometimes, to suspend students who let a word slip out when they were angry.
It was a losing battle, I knew. They could not offend me and the idea was that by taking away speech restrictions, some of the magic would wear off and these words could be just other nouns, adjectives and verbs. It was a lesson on the value of American freedom. One student even asked me if it was possible to make a sentence only of curse words. I tried: “Fucking fuckers fucking fuck.” Then I said, “It’s a terrible sentence, but at least you can pull a general meaning from it.”
In the classroom the whole idea petered out. Nothing could offend anyone, I believed. But of course I was wrong. I had forgotten one of the main tenets of childhood, that kids can be very cruel. Also that kids are stupid sometimes, that they have no self-control (any longer we live in a world of children, don’t we?) The freedom I believed in was not the freedom of the real world. When the students allowed my classroom rules to slip out into their other classes, and in the hallway, and when speaking to the principal, things got pretty hot for me. I was correctly blamed for creating an atmosphere of joyous anarchy, and the impact on everyone was the inevitable: free speech was challenged and the challenge won.
One of my most gifted students was applying to the top school in the district, an elite academy for the best of the best. He belonged there. I have no problem admitting that he was much smarter than me. He was a brilliant writer, using very advanced methods to make his points: circular logic, stream-of-consciousness, and a vocabulary that could put most people to shame. Oh, and I should add that he had moved to the US from China two years before. He spoke with no discernible accent. He was fluent in seven languages. His average in my class was 107%.
So this kid went to his interview. He was going to be the pride of our school. I was certain that he would breeze through Yale or someplace like that. And then he reached the limits of free speech.
The boy sat there writing in his notebook while waiting his turn to be assessed. What he was writing were harshly negative observations on the characteristics of the three people doing the interviewing. This commentary was absolutely free. He told me later that I had inspired him. He told my principal this. He told the regional superintendent. I came close to losing my job.
What happened was that they asked him what he was so furiously writing in his notebook. Now he could have said it was just a personal journal, or a diary, but he was a very honest kid. He asked them if they wanted him to read it. When they said yes we were all suddenly in trouble. He had ripped so deeply into these people that there is no doubt half of what he said was actually true.
Of course he didn’t get into the school, and there was the end of my classroom experiment. I was ordered by my principal (who was scolded by her bosses over the incident) to stop letting the kids swear. I had a talk with all of them, in every class, telling them what I was told and then surreptitiously looking at the door and whispering, “So we have to keep it quiet. No one sees your papers other than me. Just stop saying it out loud–especially when she comes in to watch me teach, which I suspect will be often. You guys will get me fired.”
Now this, in many ways, was a challenge to the students who bought into my style of teaching, yet still did not like me. But I had enough loyal kids in the room who listened to me that that kid–a trouble-maker in every class– could easily be written off as an asshole trying to offend everyone. There are limits to free speech in school. School is not a democracy. It is a parliamentary dictatorship.
I have never thought that there is such a thing as a bad word. What we all really need to learn is context. Every word can be acceptable given specific contexts, screaming “Fuck!” when you slam your finger in a door, or calling someone an asshole after they crash into your car. These are understandable moments when words may otherwise fail you. You can stammer in frustration or just mutter “shit.” Shit can sum up most situations very nicely.
For a quick historic example of how free speech comes and goes in society let us turn to the French Revolution. Before the revolution it was a crime to insult the king or members of the royal family, or anyone these fancy people believed above the rabble. People were throw into dank underground prisons, or marched right up to the guillotine if they said something offensive. These were angry revolutionaries that the King wanted to quell.
It was a bad time in France then, the division between the rich and the poor so profound that the foolish queen once told the people that they should eat cake and stop worrying about starvation. Of course cake was more expensive than bread and most of them could not afford bread. This led to an increase in crime (look to Les Miserables, the great novel, or even the musical for a tale of this crime: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451525260&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).
With crime on the rise and chaos reigning everywhere, the people were desperate to be heard. A bitter rage overwhelmed France, and the king and queen were eventually captured and put to death. People sang in the streets for nearly four years, everything legal, no restrictions on anything. It was a joyous, lawless society.
And then came a period of time that has gone down to history as The Terrors (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780312352240&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used). This was wholesale slaughter, the new rulers taking charge and demanding loyalty and submissiveness from the citizens. Murder was random and wide-spread. They outlawed religion and had both atheistic dances and Satanic rituals, complete with human sacrifice, mocking statues of saints, trying their best to offend everyone. And they put in place new laws. The punishment for praying was death. The punishment for modesty was rape. The punishment for speaking out was torture. The punishment for living was being trapped in France, scared, uncertain of what horror the next day might bring.
Free speech is the most important right a person has in free society. It is the permission to say whatever you want, no matter how hurtful, stupid, or insane. There is a reason the founders of America put freedom of speech, religion, the press and the right to assemble and protest first. Everything else, all freedoms, are an extension of this right. What the first amendment really grants is the right to be an asshole.
So we can say whatever we want to anyone. And they can say anything back. Sometimes this leads to violence. At times it can even start a war. But these are our deepest and truest rights if we wish to live in a free society. Trying to impose restrictions on words and ideas that may hurt someone’s feelings are not a balm to passionate anger and self-justifying hatred. Those things will never go away. And if we wait for the next revolution to take care of these problems, and we aloofly watch the world as we know it slip away because someone upset you, then the only thing we have to look forward to is tyranny.