Periodically, an event appears on the news that is controversial and sparks cries of infringement of the First Amendment violations. Such was the case recently, when Atlanta pitcher John Rocker made some rather unflattering remarks about certain New York subway riders. He has been derided for his inflammatory remarks — and, at the same time, supported for exercising his right to free speech.
I’ve had problems with some of the legal interpretations of that precious First Amendment. Should we really be allowed to insult, put down, attack, threaten, etc., fellow human beings (strangers, friends, relatives and family) without some sort of reprimand by society?
Restrictions already exist on our freedom of speech. I wonder how many of you have been adversely affected because you’re not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater? Who among you would be foolish enough to board an airplane and then proceed to talk about guns or bombs? Freedom of speech is even being curtailed in advertisements done by Papa John’s Pizza, as reported in newspapers on Jan. 4. Pizza Hut, which advertises “Best Pizzas Under One Roof,” sued Papa John’s for advertising “Better Ingredients — Better Pizza.” Papa John’s lost, [which took away] some of its First Amendment rights.
Other examples of [free-speech restrictions] come from Asheville Citizen-Times headlines: “All-white jury convicts Klansman with black lawyer in crossburning” (June 24, 1999) — (the prosecutor said, in part, “Nobody has the right to intimidate others.”); “Supreme Court upholds law to keep smut out of e-mail” (April 20, l999); “Two Charlotte men sentenced to prison for racist remarks” (July 13, 1997).
To paraphrase an (Asheville Citizen-Times??) editorial dated Dec. 1, 1995: From WWII days, “Loose Lips Sink Ships” … hostile submarines no longer a threat, but careless talk still can result in tragedy. On all sides we find hatred, bigotry, violent political dispute and equally violent religious dispute. Some … is dry tinder … waiting for a single spark to burst into flame. That spark could come from a loose mouth connected to an empty brain. The trouble is, we tend to underestimate the power of suggestion. … Hatred is inevitable, maybe, in this heated world, but violence should not be … unless it is fanned by stupid, brainless talk.
Freedom must be accompanied by responsibility. If not, it can deteriorate into wanton anarchy, with no regard for the feelings or safety of other human beings. Most people, after the age of 16, are free to drive automobiles from one end of the country to the other. However, before they are given that freedom, they must take written tests and actual driving tests to demonstrate that they know the rules and can manipulate the vehicle safely, so as not to endanger or frighten other people. After all, a car or truck can be a deadly weapon in the wrong hands.
Words and language are also powerful weapons that can have a tremendous impact on whoever hears them. To quote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, “Words are loaded pistols.” I am concerned about the negative influence of sharply aimed words — specifically, [words] used to deride their targets. Some of those targets have gone on to get even for some of the insults and putdowns. Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., is one such example that comes to the minds of many of us. There have been others, and there will be more. It is time to take seriously the potentially violent consequences of our reckless use of language — under the false assumption that we are free to use any words we want, at any time, because of that sacrosanct First Amendment.
I wonder what would happen if we took the time to train people … how to talk to one another in peaceful, nonthreatening ways. One powerful way to learn a new skill is to imitate those around us. Who are we imitating now? Movies and television shows are high on that list. Even the comedies are filled with sarcastic putdowns. We can no longer afford to let our children loose with all those words at their disposal, without strict training as to the possible consequences of reckless speaking. They, at least, deserve the same amount of training as will be required to earn a driver’s license. We all could benefit from learning more diplomatic ways of expressing ourselves, especially when we are talking with someone whose beliefs are different from ours. I imagine this would include very nearly everyone, since there are probably no two people in the whole world who have identical beliefs about everything.
I would suggest an experiment: Let some of us in monitored parts of the country encourage a special interpretation of that First Amendment to mean a freedom of thinking and internal self-talk, but prohibiting actual verbalizations of derogatory remarks.
Let us create safe zones or areas where insulting language is prohibited. After all, we’re now accustomed to “No Smoking” areas. While we are in a safe zone, we may notice that no one is insulting us, calling us names, using sarcasm aimed at us, swearing at us, or putting us down in any way. The result of this safe environment might be that we would have no one to react to in a negative manner. We could learn new ways of saying things that might result in a different kind of communication. We could learn to select our words more carefully, so they would not be insulting to those we are talking with. We would have the pleasure of hearing people say things to us that would not make us defensive or embarrassed or angry.
How could we get into arguments or fights? We probably couldn’t — there would be no need. Arguments and physical violence occur only in a different environment, where putdowns and insults are allowed or even encouraged — where we arrogantly claim we are right and whoever disagrees with us is wrong and, therefore, must change their ways. In a safe zone, we could each have different beliefs and behavior that others would not be trying so undiplomatically to change. To quote Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”