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Is Offense the New Threat to Free Speech?

The article “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech” isТ from John O’Sullivan at The Wall Street Journal. See:ТТ 

O’Sullivan writes the following curious points in quotation marks. I occasionally comment in italics:

“Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in a multifaith society.”

Personally, I need to hear critiques of my thinking in order to reflect and grow. I am curious about the beliefs of others and would like to be taught. I wonder if we might have a healthier discourse if others thought the same?

“In Britain, the sitting Tory home secretary, Theresa May, long resisted efforts to reform a catchall law regulating speech that the police have enforced with extraordinary zeal and no sense of proportion. These police actions include arresting a protester for asking a policeman “Is your horse gay?”; prosecuting a drunken soccer fan who, from his sofa, attacked a player in a racist tweet; summoning a youngster to appear in court for a placard describing Scientology as a cult; and arresting a Muslim demonstrator for burning a Remembrance Poppy.”

I would not defend the actions of the people above as sensible or kind, but I would prefer they be allowed to act as they choose without bringing the justice system into the mix. There are more useful ways to spend the public dollar in an effort for a better society. I would redirect such public spending on prosecutions to the children of the state that Lemn Sissay speaks for here:Т

“The new censors advanced such arguments as that ‘free speech can never be an excuse for racism.’ These arguments are essentially exercises both in begging the question and in confusing it. While the principle of free speech cannot justify racism any more than it can disprove racism, it is the only principle that can allow us to judge whether or not particular speech is racist. Thus the censor’s argument should be reversed: ‘Accusations of racism can never be an excuse for prohibiting free speech.'”

As a working class-born somewhat privileged white male, I’m not confident I can speak to this issue. I have empathy, but not enough experience. I’ve been called a “cracker” before but I was so young I didn’t get it then and I have never known the pain of someone attacking the degree of melanin in my skin.

“Today, content is increasingly the explicit justification for restricting speech. The argument used, especially in colleges, is that ‘words hurt.’ Thus, universities, parliaments, courts and various international bodies intervene promiscuously to restrict hurtful or offensive speech—with the results described above. In the new climate, hurtful speech is much more likely to be political speech than obscene speech.”

“The definition of political speech has changed too. The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded it to include nonspeech actions, such as nude dancing. Conservative judges such as the late Robert Bork had some fun pointing out that, under the Court’s rulings, students couldn’t lawfully pray before a football game, but they might dance naked—unless the dance included scarves, since this might constitute a prohibited ‘biblical’ allusion to Salome’s veils.”

I recall praying with my coach and team before basketball games in high school. My then coach was a Promise Keeper and I wanted to start the game, so I did join and would have joined even if I had feelings of dissent. My football coach wouldn’t let us pray with other teams when they requested. I noted the difference then, but didn’t have strong feelings either way. I’m not sure my former basketball coach would be able to conduct his prayer sessions at a public school today.

“But to bring the issue up-to-date: Burning the Quran also expresses a political opinion. Would today’s justices reach the same conclusion as their predecessors did on the question of flag-burning?”

The U.S. and Britain have long thought of themselves as, above all, free countries. If that identity continues to atrophy, free speech will be the first victim. But it will not be the last.”

I think of the silly comedy from the early 90s called PCU: Politically Correct University with Jeremy Pivin. All of the various dissenting groups are stuck in-fighting across campus and only a celebration with music (the Parliament Funkadelic) and drink can bring them back together again. I’d like a planet where we can speak freely and even disagree, but all in an effort for respect and open discourse. Can celebration and civic communion bring us together after we offend, too? I’m not sure, but life certainly isn’t a movie.

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