Free Speech

Posted on June 24, 2010


Free speech. As Americans, this may be our most prized right. From agitators who have brought us changes we didn’t, as a culture, initially embrace, to teens struggling in their growth as individuals, we relish our freedom to say what we think. In psychology, it is the beginning of all healing, that place where we articulate the boundaries which keep us safe from one another, but allow us to connect with one another as well.

It’s an amazing power, awesome in its ability to educate, unify, and heal, and equally terrifying with its ability to propagandize, divide, and destroy. Like a vehicle speeding along with thousands of pounds of momentum, it can take us efficiently anywhere we want to go, or it can take a life in a second. It’s interesting to me, some of these rights we have, that are almost completely unregulated.

I have to take a test to obtain the privilege of driving, or work as a doctor or attorney. There is no test or training to convey the permission to have children, vote, or open my mouth. That’s a good thing, because we don’t want to give that kind of power to a test creator, so in our most important activities, we are left to find the training ourselves. The general rule seems to be, you can do anything with that paw until it touches me.

I’m reading again a wonderful book that stretches me to be ever more responsible with those unregulated activities. Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend is an evangelical Christian text on interpersonal psychology and I love it. It reminds me of all the thousand ways I can use my freedom of speech to grow things, and to tear them down, and to recognize more quickly the subtle differences.

Long an advocate of almost unrestrained speech in the public sector (probably because I struggled to articulate self-protective speech personally), I’ve strained against the habits of my faith which encourage restraint of speech for the sake of unity. My heroes have long been those who said what others were afraid to, and sometimes placed themselves at odds with the structures they loved, who identified the goofy (or ghastly) things that were occurring with clarity and demanded better behaviors.

Last night I realized once again the need for balance. Speech may be intended to improve, educate, or reclaim, but still be destructive. Not rocket science, but the extension is that we preserve the best possibility for ultimate change if we err on the side of restraint. I can’t believe I just said that, with images of Chavez and al-Qaeda pointing their fingers at me in mockery. But whom have we ever convinced of their wrong by screaming it at them? And how many have joined the other side because of the shrill accusation of those who thought they were right?

It works well with kids to listen and talk to them as intelligent, free beings while we tackle the tough business of altering behavior and growing responsible adults. It works well as statesmen to begin with common ground and listen as much as we speak while we tackle the tough business of growing a responsible world. Free speech is a wonderful right and a magnificent opportunity to broaden our experience and understanding, a train that we can ride anywhere for free.

It’s a horrifying way to run someone over.

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