On Freedom of Expression, Self-Control, Compromise, and Censorship

I had a break from my usual staid, conservative self last week. In the midst of all my fraud and identity theft crises (discussed in a previous blog post), I was posting to FB periodically on the worst day. I’d been passed from provider to provider, country to country. I’d just had it. So I dropped the F-bomb.

Usually, I don’t do that. I choose to keep things “clean” and “above board,” especially in any written piece that may persist long beyond my natural life. I don’t care if others use the language of the vulgar masses of the populace; if I have too much with it and feel sullied, I walk away or stop reading. But in that moment, that point of time of frustration beyond anything, only the F-bomb would do (since the atom bomb wasn’t an option).

I was rather unprepared for the response. You would have thought I’d recreated the Manson murders in real life. My sanity was questioned. I was asked whether I cared about my image. It was suggested I was just too clean cut.

On the one hand, I was irritated beyond belief. FB is my electronic gin joint. I am the bar keep. I want the freedom for myself and others to express and explore ideas within reason. Language is constantly changing. Words that were frowned on years ago have become common place. I wanted to tell the fifty-something stuffed shirts to take a chill pill. As a matter of fact, I wanted to encourage them to use the unfriend option to their good health and my mental sanity; better yet, I wanted to assist them by using it myself.

And I considered their reasons so shallow… image conscious, out of character, not morally wholesome.

I might have considered a reason based on offense and etymology because I thought I had a foreign language teacher tell our class it came from an old Germanic root meaning “rape.” As a feminist, I would have conceded immediately and changed it right away. In reality, it comes from a Dutch root in the 15th century meaning “to thrust” or “to copulate with.” The Swedes also had a similar root with similar meanings and a one-up-man-ship meaning referring to the male anatomy used in said act.

So I have this great freedom to express myself however I want. Unfortunately, Saul of Tarsus faced the same choices, but he did things a little differently:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.  No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

So, I had to consider that my exercise of my freedom, my choice for my rights, may not have been constructive to these people (notably, all male). So, while getting it off my chest may have been immeasurably satisfying for me, it might not have been good for others.

So I compromised. I edited the post and moved on.

Later on, I stopped. I got concerned.

You see, in this case, people from various denominational pews found my language offensive and I bowed to pressure to change my language. It was okay for a greater good.

But it sets a dangerous precedent. There was truly no physical harm that came from the F-bomb. The only damage was that some people felt emotionally disturbed. By my bending to pressure, I set the precedent of bending to pressure to cause good feelings. I gave away my first amendment rights to freedom of expression through a free press of FB.

Where does it end? If my security weren’t properly set, lots of people would see my compromise. It would give the impression that the groups will cave because they make others cave or that the groups are bullies. With those impressions, more people could get the idea to request other words are removed or we avoid the discussion of volatile ideas.

Cities could demand that pieces, like homilies and sermons, must be reviewed prior to publication to ensure it’s not hate speech; Houston has made that request, and I’ve not seen a recent update. Bloggers could have to go before a review board to ensure that the personal commentary  wasn’t offensive to other religious, political, or social groups. Novelists could find certain topics taboo and not be able to publish.

The reality is, if you want freedom of speech, you have to allow others to have freedom of speech. You can’t contain others with their rough edges from harming you with their words unless you someday want to find yourself boxed in and unable to move freely in the realm of self-expression. When only one idea or point of view or mode of expression is tolerated and others are eschewed and nearly criminalized, you end up with the Inquisition or Salem witch trials or the McCarthy hearings or the Holocaust.

In a free society, you have to tolerate all kinds of ideas. If you find an idea or the way it’s expressed offensive, learn why the person feels that way. Be prepared to explain how you feel and express your ideas.

And sometimes, just walk away.

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