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King: Free speech precious, but abused

POSTED: August 13, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Moods, personal ups and downs, are cyclical. Even the most cheerful of optimists have their bad days, and pessimists have been known to smile occasionally. According to a friend who tracks cycles in the stock market, the public has moods swings as well. At present he is looking back through old media photos of public figures. Think Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta. Mostly, those fellows looked pretty grim.

My friend is charting the times when the majority of these public photos show people smiling and relaxed, and the times when they look tense and austere. I don’t know if one can predict the stock market this way, but I do believe public mood swings are very real and have a palpable effect on mass behavior.

When you look at things globally, it’s as if the whole world is in a funk. Even the earth itself seems confused and unhappy. Maybe it’s the weeks of rain we have experienced recently, it’s enough to get anybody down, but that doesn’t explain the anger and frustration reported in the national media. Nobody is happy with anybody.

Mood swings are usually self-limiting. Like a bad cold, a bad mood has to run its course before it goes away. Just the same, we need not let it control our lives. We don’t have to add to the general

malaise.

A recent poll indicates that of the many freedoms Americans enjoy, freedom of speech is the most valued. Given a world where someone can be dragged away in the middle of the night for speaking truth to power, I understand why we feel this way, but there are limits to free speech. We cannot yell “fire” in a crowed theater.

We train our children not to stare at human deformity — the man with the twisted body or the woman with the disfiguring birthmarks. We tell them not to mention great aunt’s Tillie’s ridiculous make-up or Uncle Jeffery’s alcoholism. We actually teach our children to lie — politely of course. This is how we civilize the next generation.

But we don’t warn them to keep their political opinions within certain bounds. When a child grows up hearing America’s president, his party and the U.S. government damned at the dinner table night after night, he or she is apt to believe their parents’ opinions are God’s truth and justify hostile, even violent behavior on their part.

Yes, I am talking about how people are behaving in today’s politically divided environment, but this isn’t just the Republican South, and it isn’t just 2013. It’s true around the world. This is how al-Qaida indoctrinates. This is how fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians alike train their followers. This is how we teach hate.

Recently the Associated Press disseminated a story about a Florida man who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for exercising his personal concept of free speech. Before the 2012 election, the man posted a threat to Barack Obama on Facebook. He said he would “hunt” him down and kill him if he were re-elected. When someone pointed out that this was a federal offense, he said, “Let them come after me. ... Be more than happy to take a few of them with me.” Now the man is in federal prison.

Did the government violate his right to free speech? Was there a better way to deal with this kind of mindless hatred? I really don’t know, but I can’t put all of the blame on one over-stimulated, undereducated man. Sure, he should have known better, but so should his friends and family who tolerated his out-of-control anger.

One of the first columns I wrote for the Times started out: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Is it true, I asked?

I didn’t think so then; I don’t now. Words are powerful. Free speech is precious. Let’s not abuse either one.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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