Sunday, March 26, 2006


You can say it, but …

A moment of rumination on free speech – and what appears to be considerable confusion about the concept protected by the First Amendment. That little ditty says that “Congress shall make no law...” infringing free speech. Now over time, the courts have applied that broad prohibition to apply in varying circumstances, but it’s pretty much just what the words say. The government can’t stop you from saying it.
But that doesn’t guarantee you free sailing after you’ve said it. You can’t be arrested for it unless it falls into that falsely crying “fire in a crowded theater” category. But you do bear any and all consequences for your action.
You may be viewed as a boob, a kook or a bigot in the court of public opinion. You may be viewed as a poor job candidate or employee and asked to exercise your free speech on someone else’s dime. You may find that customers no longer stroll into your store to buy your doodads. You may end up on the couch for a week or so.
And those consequences for arguably ill-mannered behavior predate the founding fathers. I have it on good authority that there were consequences when Cro Magnon man freely grunted “UGH” when introduced to Neanderthal’s first wife.
That’s just the social aspect of what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” in an economic sense. When we come together as a community, we pass laws we think will enhance the common good. But those laws are not the only forces acting in that direction. When we come together as a community, the forces of our nature also move us to cooperate to a degree and to be mindful of others. No law requires us to bathe. But if we enjoy the company of others, it’s a recommended strategy.
The same is true of speech, although I’m not sure this theory holds when applied to in-laws. Of course you CAN say it. But before you exercise that right, it often is wise to consider whether you should. Because I’m not going to have much sympathy for you if the consequences of your boobish, bigoted, blasphemic, or gutterish utterings mean you aren’t invited to the Grand Gala, lose your paycheck or find no one wants to cough up $100 a seat to hear your next rant.
My rant was inspired by Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s little contribution to modern manners at Hatboro-Horsham High School during its first-ever Health and Wellness Fair, as reported here by the Associated Press.
In short, he insulted Asian-American McDonald’s employees and, in a moment of pure comic genius, “retarded” kids in helmets, pointedly the two rows of such students in the back of the auditorium who were subsequently escorted from the school-sponsored show by their teacher. He got a huge cascade of applause after this performance, and later talked of how this was a valuable lesson in free speech for the kids. A talk he was to give later for community members was canceled.
He said he was asked before the first talk not to go into the “McDonald’s employees are idiots” routine because a school board member owned a franchise, and explained that he was being a stand-up guy by resisting such censorship.
Somehow, I think he missed the point. Yup, he showed those kids that in America you can say just about anything you please. But perhaps the more valuable lesson came later when the school elders agreed, but invited him to exercise this particular speech elsewhere.
Thus a blow is struck not in the cause of censorship or political correctness, but for some measure of civility and respect for others, and I would say the health and wellness of that particular corner of society.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?