The “Principles” Principle


I can vouch:

Running nose-first into one’s principles hurts like hell.

It literally caused me pain as I bit my tongue when a colleague recently shared a piece he’d written celebrating the current president’s inauguration.

I bit even harder when he spouted alternative “facts” and opinions so Right leaning about both the president and his opponent that I feared he’d topple out of his seat.

I tasted the metallic flavor of my blood when he talked about how America would be the better for the president’s election.

I wish I could say that I contained my Left-wing passion and stifled any outburst. Sadly, I didn’t. I instead urged him to send his piece to Fox News because it would fit perfectly with the other nonsense (actually, I think I said “BS”) it broadcasts on behalf of (and to) the president.

So, I fell off the beam of this essential principle – or worse, had been baited into jumping off.

Either way, I was embarrassed.

I believe to the core of my being in the uniquely-American right to free speech. My personal and professional existence depends on it.

Therefore, with an apologetic nod to my colleague, I reiterate a basic, essential truth: Freedom of Speech – indeed, all our American freedoms – must work for everyone (including, most crucially, the media) or it doesn’t work at all.

Everyone has a right to their opinion, no matter how much it might test, twist or tear actual facts, philosophical truths, logic, systemic norms, cultural protocols, morality, legality, ethics, common sense, basic human decency or social decorum.

Conversely (and equally important), free speech cannot be limited just because someone – anyone – does not like what’s being said. If someone can limit my Freedom of Speech, then someone can limit your Freedom of Speech. This is a key point often forgotten, misunderstood, ignored and politicized at every level.

Simply put, what you say may not be “right”, but that doesn’t negate your right to say it.

If your words don’t jeopardize my fundamental ability and privilege to pursue life, liberty and happiness then you are welcome to them. You are free to share your view to your heart’s desire (or, the extent to which anyone wants to listen.)

Side note: I did not say anything about being offended by someone’s views. In this regard, I agree with my right-wing friends. Most of the time, under most circumstances, “offense” is subjective. One chooses to “take offense,” and how to respond to said offense taken.

(Side-Side note: “being offended” is not the same as suffering emotional harm, which can and does result from using words as weapons.)

“Offense,” in America, is an interesting critter. There is such a thing as “offensive” language, ideas, actions, etc. However, the definition of “offensive” turns with the tides.

Our American system guarantees Freedom of Speech of all kinds (as long as you’re not yelling “fire” in a movie theater, etc.)

What constitutes “offensive” speech changes as our society changes. Heck, Lenny Bruce’s most “offensive” jokes are passé dialogue on prime-time television today.

More than the courts of law, more than politicians (or their followers), more than the media, “free speech” in America is largely decided and policed by the Marketplace of Ideas.

We can certainly discuss and debate, even disagree and dissent. That’s all great, and in fact encouraged. But in America, no one can take away my right to think my thoughts.

(Likewise, I am responsible for the consequences that my thoughts, words and actions might bring.)

To be blunt, my colleague’s essay deeply offended me. However, I should have done a better job of honoring his right to share his opinion (or, at least, bitten my tongue harder.)

Society, through its beliefs, philosophies, commitments and changing culture, defines and refines what is acceptable speech.

Which is really the point.

We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than any one person. We are a part of an ideal – the principle that our right to shape our views and share our minds is essential to the Greater Good of our country, society, and humanity.

The ideal of free speech – like so many other parts of our American system – is both blessing and curse. Beautiful and ugly. Seemingly easy in theory yet maddeningly hard in practice.

Yet that principle is worth protecting.

No matter how frustrating, confusing, self-contradicting — or painful.