Yesterday, I picked up my local paper and read something that disturbed me. Both the content and the placement of the content within the paper seemed inappropriate to me. That sparked a bit of discussion online across various platforms. What stuck with me was a comment about free speech. A friend of mine said that it was surprising that I would not defend the right to free speech at all costs, because I make my living as a writer. I’ve been mulling over that comment, in particular, especially because I had a treatise about something that I was going to write and publish here, and then decided against it.
The above image is from the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Out of all of the memorials in D.C., this one always haunts me. If you’ve ever seen it at night, you know that it is downright creepy. Out of all of the memorials in D.C., the Korean War Memorial, in my opinion, provides the most visceral experience. Standing among the soldiers walking, and then considering the section above, which is carved on a wall around a fountain/reflection pool, is other-worldly.
Freedom is not free
I am not active in the military. Neither is anyone on my side of the family. My brother and sister in laws were in the Navy for a full tour. I can’t pretend to understand what it is like to be in active combat. When I consider the rights and responsibilities associated with free speech, though, this war memorial came instantly to my mind. Freedom is not free. Here’s what that means to me:
In order to be free to live a happy life, without abuse, without trauma, without illness, without injury, without poverty, without hunger, and without hate, I have certain responsibilities. In order to be free to have family, friends, a garden, a pet, a husband, a community, and a home, I have certain responsibilities. In my mind, the concept of “free to do as I please” is not unfettered. The only way for everyone, rather than a narrow spectrum of people, to enjoy freedom is for everyone to think about what they are doing and saying, the result of that course of action, and whether they are willing to live with the likely consequences of that action, and then act. And, yet, when some people think through those steps, we still end up with people defending violence and enacting violence, we will still have oppression, and we will still have hunger and homelessness and other malaise.
I believe that, a “free” society still lives by rules of courtesy and decency. For me, that means doing what I can to be compassionate and to stop violence, abuse, and hate. I realize that my idea of courtesy and decency are different than that of others. My idea of acting in a courteous and decent manner includes directing my discourse toward the proper audience. I realize that what I think is proper is different than what others think is proper. I also know that “proper” does not necessarily mean “receptive.” I believe in the right to protest.
How does this relate to free speech?
I could write whatever I want on this blog. It is my blog. That’s why I have it. However, it isn’t the right place for some things. There are some discussions that I don’t want to have in public. That’s my choice. There are some discussions, given my business as a writer and representative of many different companies and clients, that should not be held in public. In my mind, and by my definition, the right to free speech does not mean free to discuss anything and everything anywhere and everywhere–not if I want to be free to live in peace, free of hunger.
I just got back from a writer’s conference where I sat in on a publisher round table. We discussed the voice and tone of different publications, and the need to target a writing query toward the particular voice and tone of the publication we are querying, if we want to be considered for an assignment. The rules of capitalism dictate that in order to make money, you must direct products toward a target audience, and, unfortunately, for most people, money is necessary in order to live–for food and shelter. Not everything is appropriate for every audience.
Free speech does not equal a “free for all”
Which brings me back to the newspaper article. Yes, I was upset about the content. It is hard to see how someone could write what was written, at all, let alone publish it as a piece of journalism in the newspaper. However, when I think long and hard about it, my complaint, and where it falls along the freedom of speech spectrum, is that I feel that this article belonged in the opinion section of the paper, if it belonged in the paper at all. And, yes, that is my own opinion. I’m not the editor. That was her call. So, while, perhaps, as much as it pains me to acknowledge that, yes, the column’s author has the right to free speech, and to say what he said, somewhere, I believe that with that right also comes a responsibility to the medium for which you are writing. Perhaps the column will be defended because “It was a column, not a piece of journalism.” In that case, I question the wisdom of the editor to run a column that defends violence in the newspaper. Did the message fit the medium? And, is the message something with which they want to be associated?
Think before you speak
I get teased for not having a good brain-to-mouth filter. If you knew what I really think about a lot of things, well, I would be un-employed, starving, and homeless. I do have a filter. And, as a writer with a very public persona, I take that filter seriously. Some people might say that it all boils down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I wish it were that simple.
As a writer, plain and simple, I believe in fitting the message to the medium–it is still free speech.