Though June is only, technically, just a bit more than half over, the pop of the occasional firecracker tells me that the neighborhood is already gearing up for the 4th of July. For our non-American readers, this is America's "Independence Day." Dozens of other countries have similar days, celebrating freedom and liberation.
For writers, "freedom" has a special meaning. Freedom of speech is the most fundamental right underlying our ability, our privilege, to put words on paper and share them with the world. In America, we've had "freedom of speech" for so long that we tend to take it for granted -- until we read accounts of other places where speech is not so free. We grieve when we hear of writers and journalists who are forced to flee their homelands, or worse, lose their lives, for speaking out. And we fondly imagine that such things could never happen here.
But the right to speak freely -- to say whatever you wish to say and write whatever you wish to write -- is a two-edged sword. People have died to defend the right to speak and write "the truth," to speak up for what is right, and to challenge and oppose what is wrong. But what about people who speak lies, and whose words embody everything we consider to be wrong? What about people who speak offensively about or to people of other genders, ethnic groups, religious convictions, or political views? Should people be able to "get away" with racist or otherwise bigoted comments, whether spoken or written?
There is a growing contingent in this country that believes the answer should be "no." Certain types of comments and views are "offensive" and so, many believe, should not be uttered. It's only a short step from there to say that such comments should not be "permitted" to be uttered. And it's not such a long hop from there to assume that people "guilty" of uttering such improper, offensive views should be punished.
Now, let me make it abundantly clear that I am not arguing in favor of offensive speech, or racist attitudes, or the host of evils that can emerge when, in fact, anyone can say anything they wish. On the other hand, I'm not wildly in favor of the concept that people can be punished for what they "believe." This nation is built upon the premise that people can believe whatever they like -- but that they can only be "punished" for things they actually do.
Hence, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I can't help but wonder why Clippers owner Don Sterling is being punished so resoundingly for his comments (which are a protected expression of his beliefs) rather than for a long history of discriminatory actions (which were actually illegal). Abdul-Jabbar went on to say that "we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs." Unfortunately, making a show of penalizing someone for offensive words or thoughts actually makes it more difficult to do just that!
Here's where that two-edged sword comes in. In order to right wrongs, to expose injustice, and to make the world a better place, we have to be able to identify those wrongs and injustices. Suppressing a person's right to speak (or to speak in a manner generally regarded as "offensive" or "inappropriate") is actually the opposite of "exposure." It encourages people to conceal their unpopular beliefs, not to change them. It removes the opportunity for dialogue, for there can be no dialogue if the only voice that is permitted to be heard is the voice that says the "right" things.
The value of dialogue goes far beyond those who are actually involved in the dialogue. Dialogue may or may not change the views of the individuals involved. But a public dialogue has the opportunity to do even more: It has the potential to change the views of the "audience." It reaches those who might be sitting on the fence, who haven't thought much about a particular issue, or who didn't even realize that the issue existed. Hearing both sides of a dialogue can be far more of an eye-opener than just hearing one (especially if you're only hearing the side you already agree with). For example, hearing an actual racist comment or diatribe is far more effective at getting one's attention (and evoking a response) than just hearing well-meaning people endlessly repeating "racism is bad."
A case in point is a recent "social experiment" that took place on the streets of London. The Pilion Trust charity set up a video in which a man walked around with a sign that read "F*** the Poor." Not surprisingly, passersby were shocked and angered by the insensitive sign. People stopped, spoke out, engaged in conversation, and generally expressed their disagreement with the "offensive" sentiment. But when the sign-bearer flipped his sign to display a far more socially acceptable message asking for caring people to show their support of the poor, people simply walked on by. (To watch the video, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QG3IP8MtOg)
Finally, for us writers, here's the bottom line about freedom of speech: No matter who we are, no matter what we believe, and no matter what we say, somewhere, someone is going to disagree with us. Someone will find us offensive. No matter who you are, there is someone who believes you shouldn't be allowed to express (or, perhaps, even to possess) your beliefs, no matter what those beliefs happen to be. In fact, I imagine it is quite likely that many of my readers have already been in situations where they felt they could not safely express themselves, and some may even be in such situations today.
Freedom of speech came about only because writers and speakers took the risk (sometimes to their very lives) to challenge the status quo, and speak out against those who felt they had the right to rule upon what could be said or written and what could not. As writers, therefore, our ability to speak and write freely depends, to a very real extent, upon our own willingness to grant that same ability to everyone else -- including those who we most vehemently disagree with. The day we decide that someone shouldn't be "allowed" to express views we find offensive is the day we put our own speech at risk. Someone out there doesn't agree with you. Don't give that person the tools to silence you!