Monday, June 15, 2009
The Power of the Word
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
I thought it was one of the Founding Fathers who made that declaration, but it was actually Voltaire. Maybe you knew that.
I’ve been thinking about Free Speech a lot lately. As a writer, of course I have always supported the First Amendment, with the caveat that as Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled: The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.
I grew up chanting sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. And yet, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen deadly action spring from vicious, hateful language. In my zeal to protect free speech, I am left with the horrific results when the debate ends and the gunfire erupts. James W. von Brunn, who murdered a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, had a web site that spewed hatred. He was, in some ways, an equal-opportunity bigot – willing to kill anyone who didn’t fit his vision of a “pure” American, e.g., white.
Eugene Robinson, columnist for The Washington Post, certainly a free speech supporter, raised a valid question. When does “blast-furnace rhetoric,” which though ugly is legal, cross the line because it incites others to violence? You can make the argument that neither the far right nor the far left is responsible for the nutjob who moves from advocating to shooting bullets. But Robinson suggests that many talking heads on all-news cable shows are riling up some dangerous people when they call President Obama a "socialist," label Sonia Sotomayor a "racist Latina," and claim that Democrats want to "take away your guns.”
As with all of our guaranteed freedoms, they depend on people never abusing them. Each of us has the right to her own opinion. We can and should make cogent arguments to defend our positions, and work within the political system to effect change. BUT we also need to avoid demonizing the opposition – and we must vote with the remote and turn off the television when a talking head tries to spike his ratings with rants designed to appeal to the fears and prejudices of the audience.
These are serious times that demand serious discussion. There’s no room at the table – or on television or radio – for those who aren’t willing to talk about issues without resorting to scare tactics or hyperbole.
I’m a realist. I know there are crazy people out there. But the media must stop providing these nutjobs with the “ammunition” that they then use to justify their violent actions.