Freedom of speech is an opportunity, not an excuse

On the same day that twelve people were killed in the attack on the French satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), I heard a commentator interviewed on National Public Radio say that people “are going to, you know, perhaps hesitate for a moment, think about security considerations. And that has a chilling effect on free speech…”

I had to stop and think about stopping and thinking. Was this commentator saying that hesitating for a moment and thinking about security concerns (or anything else – people’s feelings, for example) was somehow am unwarranted limitation on free speech?

The killings at Charlie Hebdo were wicked and inexcusable, and decent people everywhere must say so. But I very much doubt they were an attack on free speech. The murderers were not plotting to curtail free speech but to take revenge and, perhaps, as The Christian Science Monitor conjectured, to radicalize other French Muslims.

Charlie Hebdo’s free speech, exercised week after week, was rude, crude and intended to offend. While I defend their right to free speech, even if it is offensive, I also exercise my right to criticize what they say. Je ne suis pas Charlie – “I am not Charlie.”

Making fun of people, mocking their values and beliefs, and offending their sensibilities is not a way to promote positive social change. Such behavior betrays an arrogant conceit and a narrow outlook. It may be necessary to allow people to speak in such ways, even necessary to defend their right to speak like this, but that does not mean we approve of or condone what they say.

As a student of Jesus, I have learned that speech – what we say and how and why we say it – is of the utmost importance. Indeed, Jesus taught us that “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Freedom of speech is a political concern, and a vitally important one, at that. But the truthfulness of speech, and the love in which it is spoken, is a spiritual concern that is of even greater import.

Speech is, by its nature, revelatory; that is, our speech reveals who we are on the inside, under the layers of social sediment and public pretense. Jesus explained, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” As such, speech, when properly understood, expresses a person’s heart – his or her values, hurts, and commitments.

This is especially true of unguarded speech. A preacher’s unplanned remarks will likely reveal more about who he is than his carefully crafted sermons. A politician’s speech on the Senate floor may hide his true designs, but his speech on the sofa in his den will reveal them.

Because Jesus understood how this works, he said that “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” It’s the careless, unplanned words that most clearly reveal character.

Jesus taught his students to refrain from using speech to manipulate others into a course of action, even if that course of action would prove helpful to the other person. He disallowed the use of rejection or condemnation as a means of forcing people into doing the right thing.

Jesus also cautioned his students against trying to talk their way to success. For many people, speech is nothing but a tool to get what they want, and they know all the tricks of the trade – rhetorical devises, exaggeration, sales techniques – to make that happen. But Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

A Christian’s speech ought to build people up, not tear them down. St. Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up …” For the Christian, freedom of speech is not an excuse to belittle people but an opportunity to help them, build them up, and make the world a better place.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/17/15

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2 Responses to Freedom of speech is an opportunity, not an excuse

  1. Ben says:

    Freedom of expression is incontestable. It needs no defense or explanation & those who would obstruct the freedom may be called any number of names, none of which improves on the fact that self-expression is a sacred right. But this sacred right is also nuanced. It is a right to be exercised with conscience. For every expression, there is an impression. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I get the impression of an organization that is intolerant, crude, hateful: as backward as the backwardness it attempts to mock.

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