I recently experienced an internal dilemma. I had formed an opinion on something, only to become confused by my own logic. It was writing this article, in fact, that called attention to my own confusion. I began by writing with one perspective, and by the time I finished my original draft, I questioned this perspective. I was confused as to what I really felt and how exactly I had come to my new conclusions. In the process of thinking through something that I had initially viewed as simple, I came to realize the complexities that produced the debate in the first place.
My internal dilemma revolved around this question: is free speech really okay when it has the potential to hurt so many? At first, my answer was yes, absolutely. But as I started to form my argument for this position, I began to feel extremely guilty. By defending the right to use any language, including offensive language, I felt like I was encouraging people to do so, simply because they could. In addition, I felt that I was hypocritically telling everyone who heard an offensive word to simply turn their cheek and remember the old “sticks and stones” adage. So as I finished my first draft of this article, I walked away from my computer more in debate with myself than I was when I began. The battle raged for weeks, but I think I have finally sorted out my thoughts.
The ability to speak freely is one of the most important rights that we call ours. However, it is one of the most complex freedoms to understand. Of course, not all of your speech is protected; you cannot threaten the safety of others, spread false information to purposefully damage another’s reputation, or—as we are so acutely aware of now—even publish recordings of another’s voice when she is unaware she is being recorded (in certain states, that is). You can, however, use offensive words. In fact, you can use them as often and as virulently as you would like. And here, within the offensive-to-politically correct spectrum, lies the issue we are now facing with free speech.
We continually shame our peers, our politicians, our enemies, and even complete strangers for their words. We call them out repeatedly, and oftentimes silence them permanently by imposing fear of being publicly shamed.
I recently came across a letter from the Catholic League (a Catholic civil rights organization unaffiliated with the Vatican) to the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art that embodies both sides of this argument. The museum planned to release “Rosie’s Tea Party,” a painting that displays a young girl wearing a first communion outfit and a cross necklace. The girl uses a saw to slice through a ham–the skin of which has the words “Corpus Christi” (“Body of Christ”) written across it. Next to the girl sit various dolls, a kitten, mice, and a stuffed rabbit pouring what appears to be a teapot filled with wine (or blood). A nearby wine bottle displays an image of Jesus on the label.
Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League, writes a lengthy diatribe to the museum’s executive director, Debi Gray, including the following:
“When one of the commissioners on the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission objected to this work, you defended it, saying, ‘Art is intended to be controversial.’ Ryden defended his painting by saying, ‘I am really not poking fun at religion,’ adding that ‘Someone ought to poke fun at those Christians, though.’ I have a suggestion. Why not substitute a young Muslim girl in a hijab, wearing a machete around her neck, cutting a piece of ham with the words, ‘Allahu Akbar’ inscribed on it. In place of Jesus in the wine bottle, display a picture of Muhammad. And yes, please keep the blood.
Please be sure to let me know the outcome.”
The first time I read this letter, I was appalled. But I also immediately realized that there was something unique about the nature of this letter that makes it the perfect example of both sides of the free speech discussion. I initially wanted to punish Donohue for using the language that he does—for making ignorant and offensive claims. I considered how and why obliterating offensive language might be productive for our society, and for a moment, I could not justify arguing to keep language like this circling our country. But soon I realized, in crucifying Donohue for the language he uses, we become the same. His efforts to silence both the artist in question and an entire group of people would be no different than my own attempt to eliminate his hateful language. In short, taking away this man’s ability to question art would be the same as taking away my ability to question him.
But still, we continually shame our peers, our politicians, our enemies, and even complete strangers for their words. We call them out repeatedly, and oftentimes silence them permanently by imposing fear of being publicly shamed. What begins as public discourse on the newsfeeds of Facebook and Twitter morphs into public, virtual burnings at the stake. Suddenly, face-to-face debate has turned into vicious comments and replies. Our inclination to share our opinions online has affected the way we talk about issues that are important to us. If someone disagrees, they tell you, but they type their thoughts rather than share them personally; as a result, ten minutes after the initial opinion has been shared, the “comments” section has grown to 20 and is riddled with long paragraphs of text that should be spoken, not typed and read. It is no secret that reading a message that has been typed from a screen miles away can lose its meaning. Body language, sarcasm, emotion: all of these things are supplanted with name-calling, exclamation points, and words written in all caps. Therefore, when arguing via comment feed, we are more disposed to anger. When someone disagrees with us or writes something that we believe to be incorrect, we become defensive. It’s almost as if the lack of face-to-face interaction increases the fire in each of us to have our opinion heard, and some will stop at nothing to tear down the opinions of others in the process of proclaiming their own. This type of discourse fuels our ability to rise up as a cohesive force to curtail the speech of others—no matter how ignorant—while also limiting our ability to discuss what has been offensive in the first place. A comment feed does not foster understanding, so why do we keep trying to make it so?
Knowledge leads to understanding, and a desire for further understanding creates productive conversations.
Rather than preventing our fellow citizens from speaking at all, perhaps it is time for more of us to speak up. Donohue is not alone in his motives; he wishes to cast away slights to his own group by replacing them with questions towards another. Despite these efforts, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art will display the painting in question until Dec. 31 as part of a multi-faceted exhibit ironically meant to create awareness of contemporary art that is “informative, imaginative and relevant.”
By using our own means to eliminate any potentially offensive language, we take up arms alongside Donohue. Dissent is productive, and offensive language is not. But if you take away the latter, you are one step closer to eliminating the former, as often no clear line exists between the two. By hindering freedom of expression, we knock away bridges of understanding and allow rivers to surge in their wake. Words are precious. It is about time we started treating them as such. Donohue’s ignorance should not be met with duct tape over his mouth; it should be met with education. Knowledge leads to understanding, and a desire for further understanding creates productive conversations. Silence, on the other hand, fuels fear.
I have waffled between both sides of this argument because at the end of it all, I am one of those people who would like to live in a world where everyone feels welcome all of the time. But, I am also one of the people who wants to hear opinions different than my own, and in order to protect this right, we must not make allowances only for certain words or types of speech, for doing so would not create inclusivity, it would produce a controlled façade. The fact that I was afraid to publish my opinion on this topic should be proof enough that we should be paying attention to how we treat communication. The only way to make progress is to figure out what is truly inside the minds of those around us, sharing with them what is inside our own, and walking through the world together once we have finally reached a mutual understanding, even if that means never fully agreeing. The topic of free speech is not simple, but its application to our lives should be.