This week, I’ve found myself at a crossroads of sorts. Questioning what ‘Free Speech’ means to me. Asking, when and where does it stop; if--at all? I have watched liberals run Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich to the unemployment line; seen Martin Bashir taken to the woodshed by conservatives, and even I played a part (albeit an insignificant fraction) in rallying the troops against the likes of Ken Ham. Then, I picked up the paper last week and it was officially my turn to be lambasted by a citizen of our community. Like the liberals who blasted Phil Robertson, me included, one individual thought it necessary to no longer buy The Star if my work continued to run. That type of threat is a symptom of, what writer Jon Lovett termed, our ‘Culture of Shut-up.’ Though it may seem that progressives are the whiniest of the bunch; always labeled as “politically correct” by conservatives--this obsession with silencing the opposition is not wholly a culture perpetuated by liberals, nor conservatives for that matter. It is a culture we all reside in regardless of political affiliation. Here is the thing, though, free speech isn’t a free ride to say whatever you please without consequence and, at times, being told to “shut the hell up” is a consequence of one’s free expression.
If one uses the Bible as an excuse to be a bigot then shares that reasoning with the world a consequence of that free speech would be having me saying, “You’re an idiot, just shut up.” When Phil Robertson made his comments about homosexuality, as unenlightened and idiotic as they were, I never spoke of firing the man; on that same note, I supported A&E’s decision to suspend him. They have a brand to protect, such as The Star and if the editor chose to no longer run my work I wouldn’t cry foul because just as I am exercising my right, The Star too would be exercising theirs. In that sense free speech never ends, it is forever moving. The free exchange of ideas and the open discussion of such ideas are the crux that hold our American democracy together, but do not misinterpret that as saying all ideas are worthy of discussion. Robertson invoking free speech to tell a class of citizens they are unworthy of equal rights is a discussion not worth having and Eich donating money to the mouthpieces of such civil discourse will deservedly get you a “shut the hell up already”. These are not matters of being “politically correct,” on the contrary, it would be political correctness gone mad to allow homophobic or agenda-driven Christians a bully pulpit for unabashed vitriol. These are, instead, examples of social justice gone right; when the people tell those with megaphones that they aren’t interested in hearing such nonsense.
Like the paranoid, fear-mongering, revisionists of talk radio, I have been given a bully pulpit to scream my own agenda. Unlike them, however, I have no responsibility to the reader. I have no advertisers to answer to, no bosses to beg for approval. I do not get paid for this; I get nothing but the satisfaction that I am doing my part to further the American experiment. With no puppet masters to manipulate my strings you can rest assured that there will be no political correctness on my part; just honest opinions from another citizen who is, ultimately, just like you. The only responsibility I have is to the Constitution, in that I don’t soil its Bill of Rights when my 15 minutes are up by shaking it in someone’s face while screaming travesty. I realize that free speech is a two-way street, and if I have to pull over to kick the tires so be it.
The point I’m so chaotically trying to make is this: all of this is fair--to speak your peace AND to be told to “shut up” when you have nothing of merit to bring to the table. However, I am not of the mindset that all opinions are made equal. The idea that all opinions, regardless of their impact, should be respected is the cancer of political correctness. Some speech is dangerous, some spread myths and lies that only cause turmoil; I for one will not sit idly by and watch people invoke the First Amendment like a smoke & mirror trick to spew hate or attempt to create fictitious “debates” that only serve to halt progress. Those of us who have the courage of our convictions should not only speak up but quiet down those that wish to weaken the foundation upon which liberty rests. Not to be silenced by the government, of course, but by us--The People. By openly being able to express, “No, you are wrong so will you please just shut up already” we, as protected American’s, are able to uphold our rights and our beliefs.
Of the laundry list of reasons I could muster up to be grateful that I had the fortune to be born in America is the ability to freely opine, whether in a blog or in print, always tops the list. It is a testament to liberty that a man with access to Microsoft Word, limited writing skills, an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder and a penchant for provocation can be given the keys to the opinions page in his local newspaper. That is what free speech means to me: an obligation that means not only progress, but an opportunity for purpose.
Loren Siprell is a resident of Port St. Joe