Thursday, March 22, 2007

Censorship by Aggression vs. Free Speech for Wimps: Don’t Throw Out the Scales with the Blindfold, Ms. Liberty

Bridgethought of the Day: If it’s about the Constitution, it’s probably about balance.

Imagine the drafters of the Constitution in cartoon heaven with cloud-like thoughts floating over their heads, collectively envisioning Blind Justice holding the Scales … pretty great vision for a Constitution, that …

Plunging suddenly to earth, we are hit with the most well-known and fervently beloved feature of the constitution, the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

Since “freedom of speech” refers specifically to the Constitutional Amendment No. 1, it follows that we should examine it as defined by its usage in that document. Further looking at the interpretation of this protection, it is clear that it refers to the free expression of opinion on public issues. Having the freedom to express one’s views is of tantamount importance in a democracy, where sharing opinions should lead to a general consensus, and the ability to voice dissent is critical in making that democracy work and promote peace and prosperity, not totalitarian-based security.

It is not, however, about self-expression per se. That is important because often what gets bandied about as “free speech” is simply referring to the use of profanity, obscenity, extreme expressions, or such things as wearing revealing clothing, torn jeans, or tattoos. Self-expression tends to get confused with the expression of an opinion or view, and so someone who dresses provocatively or rides with a motorcycle gang is considered a proponent of the First Amendment, and using his “God-given right to freedom of speech.” To pass a law against these activities may be dead in the water from sheer unpopularity, but it shouldn’t be a Constitutional issue.

Of course, the Constitution only refers to government interference in the right to the free expression of ideas and opinions. There is no law enforcing a person’s right to free speech, but only an Amendment prohibiting the passing of laws that would infringe on that right. However, at times self-expression seems to supercede freedom of speech to the point where the latter is in fact abridged, not by government, but by the abuse of power by media players, strongmen (and women) in the field of communications and “the press”.

At the time the Constitution was drafted, “media” did not exist as a power-broker in the sense it does today. Yes, there were press outlets and controls, and yes, the press of the day did influence public opinion and did have control over what people heard or did not hear, and what opinions were promulgated. But even so, the press of that day was also constrained by its very nature - being restricted to print. There was a certain decorum to how news and opinions were presented that remained until the media “revolution” of the late 20th Century. Suddenly now time is compressed, and a minute has become an interminably long time interval as compared with the 15-second spot. There’s no time to contemplate, to go into historical background and detailed descriptions and analysis. There’s barely enough time to get in a few keywords. And you’d better choose them well, because the competition for space/time is stiff.

The ad campaign has become the Press Standard for speech. Each word is a sentence in itself. Grammar intrudes as an archaic artifice. Instead we read as we enter Wal-Mart: “Good. Works.” and “Always”. What do you mean, “always”? What’s so “good” about “works”, and what “works”? Why even ask? We were led down the path to understand it means “always cheaper” and “doing good for the community”, the two main Wal-Mart themes that drive their profit margins ever higher. So in this type of speech-world, we have the rise of the sharp-tongued sound-bite-delivery icons, personalities cultivated for their aura of free-speaking, opinionated style delivered on time, every time, in as few, but shocking, words as possible.

“Evil”, “hot”, “apocalyptic”, “secret”, “sex”, “killer”, “clout”, “power”, “terror”, etc. We need magnetic words to attract large numbers of iron filings, aka ratings, aka “people”, to our profit-driven presentations of “speech”, presented as “what people really think” and “you decide”, as if all of this was actually encouraging some kind of elevated free speech right-in-the-sky. This First Amendment has been raised to the height of Icon, even though until we got into the 20th Century, it was actually never invoked to strike down a single law. National security, protection against libel, and “clear and present danger” to the public or the State (be it federal or local), or the people in it, all superceded any First Amendment right - in days of yore.

Had this view been prevalent, it would have been likely that cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad would not have been protected on Constitutional grounds, since they could incite such volatile emotions as to present a danger to social stability, and hence, threaten national security. Today, however, there exists an argument that the Muslims were wrong to be offended to the point that they reacted violently, and we should not be held responsible for inciting their rage. This argument is typical of those favoring personal self-expression over decency-mitigated public opinion-expression. My personal view is that this argument is irrelevant since one cannot predict the response of another, and that the view expressed could be done in such a way as to not blatantly inflame already fanned fires and emotions in a time when so little is being done to put out fires and so much done to set many more. In other words, I believe in the more old-fashioned or traditional view wherein decorum and general decency is an appropriate mitigator of raw inflammatory self-expression. You can get the idea across a better way.

My basis for this view is that the issue of self-expression should not supercede the issue of freedom of speech as the expression of ideas and opinions. When it becomes overly focused on personal self-expression, you get a situation where one man’s right to offend another becomes constitutionally protected, while more mild-mannered types must face the firing squad of media aggression, from which they can find no relief. In fact, the media “darlings”, those rapid-fire attack dogs of opinion, leave little or no room for dissent, dominating the world of opinion with fangs and sabers, those sale-grabbing, ratings-raising shock-value words, and so the mild-mannered anti-war vegan weenie goes to bed silent. Who hears what thinking, contemplative people have to say? Do they even exist? In a world where conformity confirms existence, is there really a silent majority? Or just so much dark matter that we really aren’t sure is even there, or if it’s there, what it is…?

Ann Coulter v. Freedom of Speech.

It’s an obvious choice: Ms. Free Speech herself, acid-tongued Ann is the Poster Girl for Censorship by Aggression. Being vociferous or pointedly aggressive is a popular commodity in the media, but it is not protected by the First Amendment. It protects the expression of opinion, yes, but not when the manner of expression itself practically inhibits or abridges others' ability to express their dissenting views. Thus, the shouting matches that pass for "free speech" on Fox News are actually orgies of censorship - of views different than the shows' power-brokers or venom-spewers. Profanity per se then is not protected by the Constitution, but the expression of an opposite opinion is. Similarly, Ann Coulter's vicious tirades against those whose opinions she hates in a sense censors their free expression of opinion. Her attacks on the 9-11 widows who happen not to revel in George W's warslime were not merely libelous, but almost extortionary - a threat to anyone who could similarly express their views. The net effect: chill, Amendment #1...

Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chick who famously expressed her "shame" at being from the same state as Prez Bush, was made a pariah, the Chicks' music shunned, and a general backlash against her sent a chill down First Amendment-lovers' spines - those few still among us, that is. They weren't offended at a song expressing a desire to murder a husband in revenge for mistreatment, a criminal act, but rather by a political opinion freely expressed. Hmmmmm...

Of course, there's no law against limiting another's freedom of speech by aggressive tactics. The Constitution only protects us from government enacting laws or regulations that limit such freedom. And the media is not a law, nor are any people, taken as individuals, "government". But there are laws that limit freedom of speech, notably in the Patriot Act, where suspicion of terrorism can be based on statements people make, and that suspicion is grounds for prosecution. Once branded a terrorist, a person loses all his rights as a human being and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon villain in some video game from hell. The War on Terror has opened up a black hole in the Bill of Rights in which everything we know and believe to be right and true no longer exists, and even light cannot escape, let alone democracy or that archaic idea, "freedom."

In this world where saying something critical of Administration policies can mean TV death by rabies, there's also a substantial tide of human rebellion against the stifling atmosphere and vicious attacks dominating the right. The way some such as Bill O'Reilly smear dissenters from their hallowed views puts them directly at odds with the goals of the Constitution - to allow the free exchange of ideas in order to further democracy, not promote My Way.

It is this very threat to our Constitutional rights and human liberty that caused the American public to lose their stomach for things as they are, and for which Democrats have regained a measure of power. But Dems beware - it's not a liberal/conservative issue. It's the "liberal"
aggression against "conservative" views that brought Republicans to power in the first place. Power tends to corrupt - when maintaining and increasing it begins to encroach on the more fundamental values, such as freedom of speech - in the traditional sense.

We have to keep remembering that dissent is not unpatriotic - trying to suppress it is. Sometimes what we think of as "freedom of speech" - virulent, power-laden, heavy-handed Talk - can actually undermine the Real freedom of speech: saying what you think.

Take that, Acid Ann - and don't tread on me.

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