Yelling Fire
thoughts by Anitra L. Freeman

When we want our own way
so much we sacrifice our souls to get it
who wins?

     There are limits to how much we can control each other. There are limits even if we want to control each other and believe that it is our right and duty to do so. Even those who believe that our nation should be a theocracy ruled by their Word of God, or an oligarchy ruled by their economic power, or a socialism ruled by their their ideas of what's best for all of us, still have the very devil of a time enforcing their opinions. Vlad Drakul slaughtered all who broke his moral code, from Turkish invaders to casual thieves, and achieved a safe and orderly minor kingdom -- for a few years, but he died and it all went back to a human state of chaos. The Puritans had a thriving young theocracy going in the American colonies, where you could be jailed for not being in church on the Sabbath, or put in the stocks for whistling. But the population grew beyond the point that kind of control was feasible, because in any human population there are going to be some who are born dissenters, and some who become dissenters, and some who have dissent thrust upon them -- and there was all that frontier out there.
     And eventually we founded and based our government on the principle that we shouldn't try to control each other past the limits absolutely necessary to protect life and property -- and a number of our founding-folks spoke in favor of testing those limits, on a regular basis.
     Our nation is founded on a respect for individuals -- the concept that an individual has moral sense and all of a society's moral sense only comes from individuals, therefore let each individual get on with using her own moral sense until and unless she runs head-on up against somebody else's rights. Then someone else we've given some social authority to will have to step in and adjudicate.
     Most of the controversy we've had in American life over the years has been over questions of whether individual rights have butted up against other individual rights, and who-all's going to adjudicate? When private industry pollutes public waters, how do we balance the rights of a free economy with the rights to health and a clean environment? How do we balance the rights of women to control their own lives and bodies against the rights of all individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- when some of us believe that individual life begins at conception and others do not? Is it correct to make special efforts to give the poor, the disabled, and other disadvantaged individuals a fair shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
     One of the areas of controversy is on speech itself. If I publish pictures and stories of women in degrading sex acts, am I violating the rights of women? Who decides that those sex acts are degrading? Who decides who has been violated? What if I publish pictures of men being sexually violated, abused and humiliated? Of children? Of Lassie being raped by Bambi's father?
     Do I have the right to stand on a public street corner and string together all the swear words my mother ever taught me in the most creative combinations I can, while glaring in the faces of the passers-by -- and call it art? Many people do feel emotionally abused and physically threatened by violent and culturally offensive language. If I have the right to speak, don't they have the right not to have to listen? Do I have the right to join in public forums (including email lists and newsgroups) and curse and insult the members in the name of "free speech"? In the name of free speech, do I have the right to get up in a public forum and advocate hatred and violence against anyone -- racial minorities, religious minorities, women, or white male Republicans?
     I don't expect that controversy to ever be decided and done. I don't think that it should. I think that as long as the idea of individual freedom is still alive, and the idea of social good is still alive, there will constantly be new situations where we have to rethink how to balance them. And as long as we have a vision of a free society, all of us will be involved in that thinking, not just leaving it up to a few authorities here and there to make the decision.
     Whenever any question has more than one answer, a just decision requires several things from all concerned:
  1. Everybody involved speaking honestly about what they think and what they need.
  2. Listening to each other.
  3. Being honestly willing to reach a solution.

There are people involved in every controversy who are nowhere near #3 -- which also means, of course, they they have no intention of #2. They are in it for the fuss and fandango, and if the emotional pot ever stops boiling they'll move on to another crisis for their fix.
     There are also many who are convinced that the need and rightness of their cause is so great that only a solution 100% in their favor is acceptable. Even in those cases, however, if everyone is honest about their needs and honest about listening to each other, there's a very high chance of reaching a solution that satisfies all enough that we can go on living together. There's certainly a lot better chance than if everyone just keeps shouting loudly the next slogan they think of.
     This is what I need:
     I need to be able to write straight from my head and my heart, and publish it for others to read, and hear what they think about it. I need to be able to do that without tying myself up in self-editing over whether a word or a phrase or an image will be so offensive to one or more of my readers that I will lose the right to publish and be read.
     I need to hear honestly from others how they thought and felt about what I wrote. Disagreeing with me is not denying me the right to speak -- it's telling me I was heard. If I aroused anger when I meant to arouse love, or fear when I meant to arouse hope, I need to think about whether I can express myself better, or whether I have more to learn about human beings. If I communicated successfully, I need to know that too, because positive feedback is reinforcement, and also because it gets lonely behind the keyboard sometimes.
     I also need to see human beings live and live fully. Almost all of the time that I am not writing myself, I am helping others to learn and to create, because I am addicted to seeing the human creative spirit blossom. Any time that I see the human spirit abused or squashed causes me pain and outrage.
     Because of these things, I am in favor of free speech -- and I am in favor of limits on free speech. To say yes to some things is to say no to others. Precisely because the dignity of human life and individuality is important to me, I cannot and will not allow anyone to get up in a public forum and advocate hatred and violence toward other human beings. Because the human spirit is important to me, I must support every human beings right to express and create whatever comes from within them -- even images of anger and violence and strange sexuality, religious fanaticism, or saccharine greeting-card verses that make me ill. But I also support the right of myself and every other individual not to listen. Nazis, pederasts and Jerry Falwell clones have the right to say or draw or finger-paint anything they want to in their private homes. Anyone who harms or advocates harm to the life or civil rights of any other person must be refused access to public forums for as long as this nation supports the lives and civil rights of individuals.

Explore the issue of Hate Speech at Ariadne's Thread
Explore other issues at Ariadne's Thread
My Discussion of Fundamentalism

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