For the final part of this three part piece on words, I would like to address Freedom of Speech. Our right to freely say what we like at any given time is a much talked about topic, particularly in the United States. In Words (Part One), I made the point that words are all that we have. As the primary way that we communicate and relay information of any kind, they are the single most powerful things at our disposal. In Words (Part Two), I made a case for the potential harm done by using the phrase “Nobody can hurt you without your permission.” The point of that was not to shame the people who use it, but to identify and explain the belittling aspect of the whole idea (quite often, the result of what is said does not match the intent behind it). Parts One and Two were meant to make their points at face value, but also to encourage us to think about our words and what effect they may have once uttered. Now, we look at what it means to have the right to utter those words in the first place.
As 2013 was drawing to a close, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson caused a mass media and societal frenzy when he said some disparaging things about LGBTQ individuals in an interview with GQ magazine. The network that carries the show, A&E, reacted to the backlash over this by temporarily suspending Phil from the show. In response to this decision the religious right went wild, condemning it as a violation of Free Speech. Among the many who took to the airways and media outlets in support of Robertson was former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, who went on Fox News and said that freedom of speech means the right of people to “voice their personal opinions.” A few seconds later, she said “A&E really screwed up on this one.” What Palin, and indeed all of the people who spoke out in reference to free speech failed to realize, is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence. Although the decision was soon overturned (likely due to the massive financial loss should they stand their ground), A&E was not originally saying “Phil can’t say that.” They were saying “We do not want to be associated with hatred, Phil can’t say that here.”
Our right to say what we want does not absolve us from the consequences of choosing to say it. In March of 2003, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq at a concert in London. At the end of her short comment, she said “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The U.S. media lost their minds. Among the controversy was an ideological split between supporters and opponents of the band, heated arguments on social media and news outlets, and a much publicized dispute between the Dixie Chicks and fellow country music star Toby Keith. This controversy did not end the careers of the women in the band, but it did damage them … there were consequences. Did those who burned their albums, refused to let them play at their venues, and took them off the air violate Natalie’s right to free speech? Absolutely not, for as much as our freedom to speak is important, so is our right to react and stand in opposition.
The freedom to express ourselves with words is central to our culture, but it must not be misunderstood. We have a very important societal obligation to consider the well-being of others before we say something that may offend. Our right to speak does not carry with it a freedom from responsibility, nor does it imply that those around us must accept our views. We must attempt to understand each other. We must use the information available to us to make informed choices and informed views. We must use our rights responsibly, and we must always remember that it is wrong to abuse them by speaking with vitriol against others. When a person calls homosexuality a “perversion,” “sexual deviance,” or “sinful behaviour/lifestyle,” they must accept that the consequence of speaking without knowledge is that people will react negatively. Freedom of Speech means that we may say it. Let us not assume that we should.