Freedom of Speech in the Context of Human Relations and the Body Politic
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah as witnesses to fair dealings and let not the hatred of others toward you, make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is next to piety. Fear Allah, indeed Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.”
The Noble Qur’an 5:8
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The Holy Bible, Proverbs 12:18
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
―Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
What has happened in our country and around the world over the last few days has to affect the sensibilities of all right-minded and right-hearted people the world over. Our prayers go out to the families and co-workers of our citizens who lost their lives and for people in other countries who lost their lives caught in the middle of protests. Civil sensibilities have also been offended by the reckless so-called free speech of the persons who produced a hateful video.
The protests by some adherents of Islam in certain places around the globe show just how much work needs to be done to usher in a true reformation of civil society in many places where governments and the body politic are in great transition…a transition to gain their proper footing as believers in Islam in a world of new technology, communication, and intellectual rights and discourse.
Intellectual discipline tempered by an ability to withstand polar opposite views that one may even find reprehensible is directly related to one’s apparent perception of a personal locus of control. That is, how much control do I have over my life and therefore control over what affects my life. If I have a real or perceived inability to affect my own life through the ballot box, education, government and societal institutions, employment and other basic human rights (including rights for women, the poor, disabled, and elderly)…if I feel leadership and institutions have failed me, then I am more likely to respond at a base level of anger and violence when a trigger is applied that irritates that underlying feeling of helplessness.
The late American Muslim leader, Imam W. Deen Mohammed (ra) while addressing a group of leaders in his community and commenting on their responsibility to the people expressed, ‘You know you can say something to someone and if that someone perceives themselves to be of a lower socio-economic status or importance than you, then you can damage them for life….you can say something to them that will hurt them terribly deep in their soul, whereas if they said the same thing to you, you might not give it a second thought [because of self confidence or your perceived personal locus of control].’ I paraphrased his comments.
I was deeply affected by the Imam’s comments. What I got from him that day was we have to be very, very careful what we say and how we say it, and to whom we say it, especially if the person or group or community we are addressing has historical circumstances or sensitivities that have traditionally put them at a disadvantage on the world stage.
The world is getting smaller and smaller and the “developed” world is now in the backyard of the “undeveloped” world and vice versa. This new and increasingly closer proximity not fathomed in the early 20th century, but now ushered in by the emergence of new technology, communication, and trade presents a new dynamic in human relations and that dynamic must be met with a corresponding sensitivity to the psychological and sociological needs of populations affected by generations of a loss of locus of control.
The true profound reformation that is needed and that I referred to earlier is a gradual process and has historically taken at least a generation. Yet if we expect to live in the here and now as a global society in peace, we have to continually find ways to understand the problems and perceptions that are foreign to us as Americans and then develop strategies that will enable others beyond our borders to arrive to where we are as a citizenry in terms of civil discourse and the ability to listen, read or view an image without becoming enraged to the point of taking a life or destroying property.
But that is not to say that as an American citizenry, we too don’t have some homework to do or room to improve with respect to enhancing our democracy and its capacity to integrate and balance free speech with responsible speech. If one person by a single video is able to strike a match and intentionally or unintentionally light a keg of civil unrest and mayhem, a keg already made flammable by pent up frustrations that are unrelated to the video, then I believe it’s time to use the same media to encourage artists, writers, producers, journalists, and everyone to use our rights responsibly.
Think about this: We have legal restrictions on our free speech rights that prevent someone from yelling fire in a crowded theater because of the consequences. But look at the consequences of this video incident in terms of the human toll and costs to governments around the world. Now I know some will say, well it’s easy to predict the proximate consequences of yelling a false fire in a crowded theater, not to mention, there is no redeeming free speech value in doing so, and there may be other legal issues involved such as a deliberate intent to endanger a person. Fire in the theater is easier to litigate and legislate.
I understand too the slippery slope concept that if we apply similar reasoning to the video in question, the problem arises wherein “no one” is qualified, legally equipped, or has a right to question, much less determine, if the video has any redeeming free speech value and more important, no one has the right to restrict its production or circulation that is predicated upon some possible proximate negative consequence. And therein lies the dilemma. I am not sure if the producer, director, and financiers of the video could be liable under a legal theory of deliberate intent to incite violence…that’s for the legal minds to figure out.
So this is what I am proposing on our side for the American citizenry and society…Let’s try something different with respect to encouraging responsible free speech that does not affect the Constitution. Maybe it’s time to have public service announcements (PSAs) just like we have for illegal and OTC drugs, alcohol, voting, seatbelts, etc. PSA are often directed at behaviors we want to discourage or encourage. Perhaps we could have journalists, writers, producers, actors, athletes, religious leaders, public servants and other opinion shapers come across the TV, ipad, and laptop screen with the following (for example):
“I’m an American and I have the freedom to say just about whatever I want…I have a right and I’m proud of that right. But let me ask you, just because I have the right…does it mean it’s right to say it? Citizenship has its responsibilities. Be a responsible citizen…use your free speech wisely. Our expression can help or hurt.”
Just like I’m not a lawyer, you can tell I’m not a TV ad executive either. But I hope I made the point that PSAs could benefit us as a citizenry and even as a body politic. Such PSAs might even help temper back the daily and extreme political rhetoric coupled with personal attacks that bombard our airwaves. PSAs could benefit us at home in other ways too including helping to combat irresponsible free speech that reveals itself in child exploitation and derision of women.
I do not believe that a PSA will 100% eliminate irresponsible free speech, anymore than PSAs eliminate drunk driving, illegal drug use, high school dropouts, or voter apathy. What I do believe is that we have a responsibility as a society to not only encourage and protect free speech, but to encourage responsible free speech from inside our homes with our children, spouses, and relatives to outside in our local and global communities. I believe such PSAs can also help demonstrate to others beyond our borders what free speech means in our society and what limits we have placed upon ourselves to curtail it, and just as important, the encouragement we have for being responsible and thoughtful in exercising the right.
I believe a PSA approach sidesteps the traditional constitutional or legal barriers that have proven intractable in even protecting our own society from predatory and ethically challenged marketing and profiteering disguised as free speech advocacy. Our democracy doesn’t just improve based on changing laws or adding amendments to the Constitution. We can improve our democracy too by the way we think and the way we see one another and the world, and in the way we encourage one another to the highest level of conduct and expression.
No one credible believes anymore that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Left open for further thought and research…Peace until next time.
Sincerely & respectfully,
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