“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell Free speech is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who are easily offended, readily intimidated or who need everything wrapped in a neat and tidy bow. Free speech is often messy, foul-mouthed, obscene, intolerant, undignified, insensitive, cantankerous, bawdy and volatile. While free speech can also be tender, tolerant, soft-spoken, sensitive and sweet, it is free speech’s hot-blooded alter ego—the wretched, brutal, beastly Mr. Hyde to its restrained, dignified and civil Dr. Jekyll—that tests the limits of our so-called egalitarian commitment to its broad-minded principles.
Unfortunately, our appreciation for a robust freedom of speech has worn thin over the years. Many Americans have become fearfully polite, careful to avoid offense, and largely unwilling to be labeled intolerant, hateful, closed-minded or any of the other toxic labels that carry a badge of shame today. We’ve come to prize civility over freedom. Most of all, too many Americans, held hostage by their screen devices and the talking heads on television, have lost the ability to think critically. Societies that cherish free speech relish open debates and controversy and, in turn, produce a robust citizenry who will stand against authoritarian government. Indeed, oppressive regimes of the past have understood the value of closed-mouthed, closed-minded citizens and the power inherent in controlling speech and, thus, controlling how a people view their society and government. We in the United States have a government with a ravenous appetite for power and a seeming desire to turn the two-way dialogue that is our constitutional republic into a one-way dictatorship.
Emboldened by phrases such as “hate crimes,” “bullying,” “extremism” and “microaggressions,” the government is whittling away at free speech, confining it to carefully constructed “free speech zones,” criminalizing it when it skates too close to challenging the status quo, shaming it when it butts up against politically correct ideals, and muzzling it when it appears dangerous. Free speech is no longer free. Nor is free speech still considered an inalienable right or an essential liberty, even by those government entities entrusted with protecting it. We’ve entered into an egotistical, insulated, narcissistic era in which free speech has become regulated speech: to be celebrated when it reflects the values of the majority and tolerated otherwise, unless it moves so far beyond our political, religious and socio-economic comfort zones as to be rendered dangerous and unacceptable.