The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

Language is a magnificent construct with which we can express beautiful subtleties, clever thoughts and challenging ideas. We can discuss thorny issues. We can visit controversies. We can work toward solutions.

Or we can beat each other over the head.

Anyone who peruses the Internet frequently will have noticed a trend in the discussions: an unfiltered proliferation of words flourishing on Websites, blogs, online publications, Facebook pages and Twitter. The ability to “speak” with inflammatory, disparaging and downright mean words is a temptation that apparently befalls many people.

Here some samples that I found posted today (and these are the mild ones):

Alas, the GOP field of candidates reminds me of going to the supermarket to find that this year’s crop of fruits and vegetables is rotten to the core. (Washington Post)

No matter what happens the US is done, finished, over.  All bow to your corporate masters. (New York Times)

I am ashamed of the people who are supposed to be running this country…it’s a “my way or the highway” attitude in Washington DC.  They are a disgrace. (CNN)

We Americans take our freedom of speech very, very seriously.  It’s right up there with breathing.

We speak fearlessly and the press foolishly takes our “pulse” with such comments. How many times have you heard “news” people, say “this is what people are saying?” Add in the “tabloid effect” — the likelihood that the most sensational, outrageous and often the most irresponsible comments will rise to the top of the discussion — and one has to wonder: How valuable is this, anyway?

While often people are blowing off steam as they pontificate, such loaded, thoughtless rhetoric rarely advances civil discussion. Political correctness has banned whole categories of words; it’s a shame that all malicious phrases (akin more to baseball bats than words) aren’t banned from print or posts. But alas, they are not, and I don’t suggest it. Instead, we should dispense with them ourselves.

Far too frequently, online “discussions” — and I use that term with a certain amount of sarcasm — sound more like verbal beat downs. (“McDonnell is an idiot”; “Obama is the anti-Christ”) Reason and civility are lost to the unbridled sentiments of frustrated individuals. The status quo seems to be “say anything you want and turn a deaf ear to the consequences.” Piling on this way in expressing one’s dislike for a particular political candidate, an elected official or a specific piece of legislation is common, and frankly, quite unhelpful.

Far more infrequent are discussions that explore interesting, controversial and divisive ideas with candor and civility, with honesty and open mindedness. Sadly, these are exceedingly rare.

Once in a while, however, you’ll come across a thoughtful comment that makes you think and that adds to understanding. Earlier this month, Nathan Alvado-Castle commented on a post on this blog about being “green.” In the same thoughtful way, John Reeves commented on a post about Sudan. What they wrote added  new dimensions to the discussions.

Both Nathan and John exercised “free speech” in positive, reasonable and valuable ways. Perhaps commentators elsewhere should follow their lead.  Neither yelled, condemned, name-called. They expressed viewpoints with reason and consideration — and frankly, it was refreshing. So, Nathan and John, thank you!

Somehow we need to change the tone of discussion from the current dismissive rants to comments that further discourse. And while I would never imply that freedom of speech should ever be quelled, I would suggest that thinking before one “speaks” online — or anywhere else — is a policy that might make our sacred freedom far more productive. So let’s change the tenor of of freedom of speech; let’s bridle our own, so we can really talk.

You can read Nathan’s comments here: http://jmubethechange.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-green-pen-and-the-yin-and-yang-of-modernity/#comment-4684

You’ll find John’s comments here: http://jmubethechange.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/pickaxe-and-elbow-grease-peace/#comment-4682

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About grahammb
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

  1. Pingback: Current Conversations about the Freedom of Speech in the United States « Mermaids Singing

  2. Lynda Ramsey says:

    Thank you for your candor about our unbridled freedom of speech and then directing us to a kinder, gentler freedom of speech. It is refreshing.

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