It is sometimes easy to forget that we Americans are blessed with freedoms that other people don’t have, and among these – at the very top, in my view – is freedom of speech, but like every other freedom, the word ‘freedom’ itself can be misleading.
Freedom can also be dangerously close to license, creating a confusion that, in some quarters, is remarkably alive and well. Freedom has always had limits and responsibility; license does what it pleases, regardless of consequences. License can sometimes sound like a petulant teenager or even some adults within our acquaintance (“Don’t tell me what to do”) whereas freedom knows that other people live on the planet too and may be affected by what’s said or done.
The difference was epitomized succinctly and memorably by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. when he declared “ the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
Freedom of speech includes the freedom to write, and here the English language (more accurately described as American English) presents some interesting challenges, including choosing the right word as compared to the almost right word, defined by Mark Twain as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. All writers try to find those words, and often revise what they’ve written as they make that search. All writers are also readers, and all are aware that what they write may produce a reaction and in some cases is designed to do exactly that.
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and other novels puts it this way in her memoir The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings:
“As an American writer, I have the right to express myself on any subject and in any direction I wish. I believe that what makes me an American writer more than anything else is my taking for granted this unalienable right called freedom of speech.
I hold it as not just my right but my responsibility as an American writer to reject arbitrary censorship. As a writer, I think a good deal about intentions and consequences, personal responsibility, credit and blame. These come with everything I write.”
I am the first to admit I’m no Amy Tan (in appearance or talent) and this blog reaches a much smaller audience, but her goals are nonetheless mine as well. I write about subjects that are important to me (and hopefully to others), and I try to write with a combination of passion and persuasion. Readers don’t have to agree (their right) but I continue to write what I feel strongly about (my right).
One of my goals in this blog is to encourage civil discourse whether one agrees or not. Unfortunately, that seldom occurs. Instead, and in disregard of this newspaper’s rules for posting comments, there are those who, figuratively speaking, want to swing their fist beyond where the other man’s nose begins and think that an insult is the same as a considered opinion.
In reality, it’s a thinly disguised attempt to place the blogger into an ideological box so his opinions can be dismissed. By often combining that with a derogatory name, it’s also intended to provoke a response that could easily become a flurry of an increasingly combative and irrelevant exchange of e-mails. Of course, it’s a good way to avoiding discussing the subject at hand and an excellent way of ending a conversation before it begins.
For example, I’ve been labeled a moron, an idiot, (more than once), a propagandist, a space cadet, a puppet of the Humane Society of the United States, a HSUS tool, a vegan, a radical vegan, an anti-hunting vegan, and (my personal favorite) an anti-democracy socialist. I have been accused of being self-righteous, a sore loser, ignorant, displaying an irrational and insulting display of ignorance, writing drivel and bleeding heart opinions, as well as delusional rants. I have also been urged (in a highly unoriginal suggestion) to go back to wherever I came from, placing me and my views in the predictable “From Away” category favored by many who disagree with what’s been written. I have also been told to “move to Hollywood where your money comes from” even though I’ve never been to Hollywood and no one pays me. So let me set the record straight – I am not a spokesman for any organization, my opinions are my own, and I will not be moving to Hollywood any time soon.
Will I continue this blog? That’s certainly my intent. Why? Aside from the freedom already mentioned, another principle is at work, based on a simple premise, to wit: the chorus of human opinion is comprised of many voices. When a voice is silenced, it is more firmly convinced than ever of what it would have said, and others are deprived of the diversity of views and different opinions that enhance the flow of information as well as the ongoing process of education which allows us to make better, more thoughtful decisions about our lives and the world in which we live.
The right to write is therefore vital. It is in fact no less than the bedrock of democracy itself.