I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are confused about what “free speech” means. It seems as though rude people want to use it as a way to avoid the consequences of their rudeness. I think it’s time we realized what free speech really means — and I also think it’s time for more of us to stand up for public civility.
In a discussion on my Facebook page, a woman decided to act out her childhood anger with people where she grew up by calling everybody in the state “inbreds.” I told her that she was being rude and insulting to others, in addition to being inaccurate. After a few minutes of a thread involving six or eight people — all letting her know she was in the wrong — she finally played her trump card.
“What happened to free speech?” she whined.
Nothing happened to free speech, but as my friend Ike Pigott responded, “Speech is free, the consequences aren’t.”
We’ve become a rude and mean society, with many people believing that it’s acceptable to verbally trash others at will — and also believing that they’re being infringed upon if anyone calls them on the behavior. Sometimes the rudeness is political. Sometimes it’s cultural or based in some form of “tribalism.” And other times, it’s just based on saying what feels good at the moment, for various emotional reasons.
What’s missing is a sense of civility that we can all strive to live up to. We don’t all have to agree with each other. (In fact, we can strongly disagree.) We don’t even have to like each other. But we’re stuck living with one another — and we’d all be happier people and this would be a more pleasant society if we could learn to disagree without the hate and incivility that have become so commonplace.
Even if we disagree at times about exactly how far it’s OK to push the limits of taste, I think we can all agree on some basics about what’s civil and what’s not — and at least try to err on the side of more civility.
As for free speech, let’s be clear about one thing. Free speech simply means that you have the right to say what you want without governments having the power to stop you or to punish you for what you say. (I think governments get terribly close to violating free speech today in this country — sometimes stepping completely over the line — but that’s a different issue.)
Your civil right to free speech means you should be able to speak without fear of government punishing you. It has nothing to do with freeing you from the consequences of your speech when other people react to you. If people believe you’re rude, they’re perfectly free to criticize you. They’re free to disassociate themselves from you. They’re free to remove you from their lives.
There was a time when I was far more likely to get mixed up in online arguments that weren’t very civil. They got me upset and angry. They made me bitter and vindictive at times. They even caused me to justify behavior that I wasn’t proud of in my calmer moments. I had to reach the point that I wasn’t willing to be that person before I could step back from those arguments. It’s a saner way to live — and life is too short to waste it with anger and bitterness about disagreements of any kind.
I think we all need to expect more civility from each other. I can’t demand it from you, but I can make an issue of it when I think it’s appropriate. More than anything, though, I can hold myself to higher standards. That’s always the hardest thing to do — but it’s always the only place for any of us to start.
In the war for civility, we first have to lay down our own sharp tongues and walk away from fights when we can. I think it’s the right thing to do — and I think we’re far more influential with others when we act that way.