In his 1941 State of the Union speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt listed four fundamental freedoms basic to the United States, freedoms he believed “... rightfully belonged to everyone in the world: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Freedom of speech was not only the first on his list, it’s the one most people think of if asked what it means to be an American. Unfortunately, many people today think freedom of speech means, “I have the right to say anything I please.” But of course, we don’t. We can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. We can’t slander people without fear of legal reprisal.
On the other hand, so long as it comes under the heading of personal opinion, we can say pretty much anything that comes into our head, facts be damned. And when it comes to politics, the bigger the lie, the more effective it seems to be.
But what concerns me here are public statements that are best labeled “opinion” but are nonetheless, hurtful and damaging. This kind of public dialogue used to be restrained by something called ”good manners.” Not today. Today, Emily Post is a joke.
The media has developed its own guidelines, but they are only a fig leaf. We all know what the n-word and the f-word are. Then there is a huge gray area. If you believe that evolution or global warming are a hoax, you can say so no matter what the science behind them proves or disproves, and the media will honor your opinion by publishing your words in near equal proportion to the counterargument. It’s news. It attracts attention. It’s free speech, but it comes at a cost.
I enjoy debate. That’s why I am a columnist, but I try very hard to be truthful and accurate. When I can, I site sources. However, over the years I’ve learned that facts are not nearly as important as emotion when human beings are concerned. If the listener or the reader doesn’t like what is said, they don’t debate. They attack.
If an individual doesn’t have the facts to refute the speaker, he or she can always go after the speaker himself. If you can discredit him or her personally, you have won your case. This is known as an ad hominem argument, and avoiding this tactic it is one of the first things a student learns in debating club or a philosophy class.
Once, a long time ago when I was young and gullible, I got talked into teaching an extracurricular course in philosophy to eighth-graders. I was supposed to teach these young hormonal 14-year-olds how to avoid illogical reasoning: Example: “All puppies are dogs. I have a new dog. Therefore, I have a puppy.”
It was a disaster. They weren’t interested. They didn’t want to think. They just wanted answers so they could pass a test.
Frankly, not much has changed. People don’t want facts. They want their beliefs confirmed. They want to win an argument. When it comes to politics, they root for their favorite party with the same fervor they show for their favorite football team.
To return to free speech, it’s not just politicians who should to be careful of what they say. Remember that poor woman on her way to Africa for a vacation? She tweeted a friend about not catching Ebola because she was white, and woke up the next morning to find her words had gone virile, and she was being slammed by half the world.
Closer to home, the other day I was made uncomfortable by a loudmouth old man in the local coffee shop who was voicing his prejudices to everyone in hearing distance. When people around him stared back in shock, he angrily announced that, yes, he was opinionated, and he was proud of it.
Joan King lives in Sautee.