Friday, January 9, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Speech and Repression

Despite the roaring fire in the woodstove, my hands are so cold that I can hardly type. After dropping to 10 below again last night, the thermometer has risen to zero, which has made almost no difference to the essential refrigeration of the house. With such cold clamoring at all sides, a stove can only do so much, especially if no one is awake to stoke the fire every 45 minutes.

This morning, I've been thinking, as I shiver, about free speech--about its obligations and temptations as well as its rights. I've been thinking also about the people in this world who are terrified of free speech--those who call on violence to quell it, but also those whose everyday lives are dedicated to a repression of liberty: perhaps their own; perhaps their children's, their congregation's, their classroom's. People on both the right and the left may fear free speech, just as people on both the right and the left may virulently advocate for it. The Westboro Baptist Church's behavior at funerals, and the reactions of opponents to that behavior, is a clear example of the way in which liberals and conservatives can suddenly swap sides in the free-speech debate.

Lately we've had conversations on this blog about the tensions between individualism and the collective. As in so many situations in life, the issue isn't either/or but both/and. Yes, we are individuals. Yes, we are members of communities--not just a single community but many interconnected ones--and we must negotiate among these responsibilities. Too often people call on the right to free speech as justification for behaving like assholes. Too often people behave viciously when they hear or see something they don't want to see or hear.

As Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, "Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess."

Now balance that assertion with Audre Lorde's words from Sister Outsider: "What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language."

In other words, as Virginia Woolf wrote in The Voyage Out, "You cannot find peace by avoiding life."

1 comment:

Carlene said...

You have found the exactly perfect quotes to summarize the balance!