Friday, September 14, 2012

And God said, “Let Them Speak Freely”

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time is likely to be grateful that I do not possess omnipotent powers. In fact I am glad that I don’t. I know, too well, how easily I could abuse such power. But there are those in the world that wish they, or someone with their understanding, were given the power to “let” or to “restrain.”

It is not easy to know the full motivation of the Muslim rioters who, as this is being written, are terrorizing the Embassies of the United States and other western nations in the Middle East. But it seems that, to some degree at least, they are angry at the United States because one of her citizens produced a provocative and slanderous video that denigrates the prophet Mohammad and offends Muslims. As a Christian, who would be incensed if some unbeliever made a similar film that called into question the character of Jesus, I understand their anger and their desire to have the film destroyed and its maker punished for making it. We have seen, in fact, strict Christian believers react, in ways not much more restrained than that of the current Muslim protesters, to books and movies that they feel are blasphemous. Sadly, we have seen photos of American servicemen urinating on a “holy book” for the purpose of disrespecting the religion of an “enemy.”

If the film in question had been produced by a Christian (or a Muslim) living in one of the Middle Eastern countries now exploding over this issue, he or she would not live one day beyond the time it took to identify and locate them. Outside of the western world, it is rare that a person can speak inflammatory words like those in the film, Innocence of Muslems, without landing in prison or running for their life. So it is understandable that the current rioters are baffled that the United States cannot bring to justice the person whose ideas are beyond offensive to them. In their world, speech (and much else) is controlled by the state, which often is synonymous with the religious establishment. A violation of their “law” is swift and often brutal.

There is much “free speech” that I would gladly see banned. The film that has Muslims around the Middle East upset is one example. But so are the lying ads on our televisions. And I’m not just talking about the horribly offensive political ads, but commercial advertising that is either deceptive or manipulative. I would have turned the microphone off after Clint Eastwood’s first vulgar joke. (I would probably censor most of his films.) I would decree that no child could be left in a home where obscenities and vulgarity are commonplace. I would reverse the Supreme Court ruling that said that the rich man’s wealth allows him to multiply his voice ten million times over that of the single mother living in poverty. I would hold people responsible for lying about their heroic exploits that never occurred. I would jail those who purposely excerpt phrases from the speech of another and twist it to mean something other than it originally did. I would rid the world of deceitful, hateful, obscene, and harmful speech.

But I am not God. I lack the power to enforce my standard for legitimate speech. And strangely, God Himself seems to have relinquished that power too by giving mankind a free will. Most of the world’s religions believe that a penalty will be exacted on those who willfully and consistently abuse the freedom God has given them. But the harms that accrue when humans take it upon themselves to define and restrict bad speech and bad behavior often outweigh the good such efforts seek to accomplish.

The United States, and a few other countries, has decided that speech that is merely offense to others should not be restricted. In the current crisis we see the awful consequences of intemperate “speech” and we wish it could be stopped. But our Founders knew that if one form of speech can be curtailed so can all others. Only by allowing all to speak freely, do we each retain our right to speak.

I have no particular Biblical reference for my contention that God favors free speech, but the evidence is pretty much in my favor. He didn’t “say it,” exactly, but he seldom strikes perpetrators of intolerance and smut with lightning. Not yet, at least. What he does do, is leave them to “reap the whirlwind”. The man who made the offensive film must now fear for his life. The lying politician eventually is found out. The profane parent lives to see their child inflict upon his offspring the same abuse that was inflicted upon him.

Thank God I’m not God! It is uncomfortable, at times, not being God. But I would do too much damage if I were given His powers. He has, though, given me some powers; given them to you, too. We have the power to speak against intolerance, hatred, deception, vulgarity. One voice against all those who spew out verbal garbage seems futile. But if a million of us lift our voice, it will be heard. And we have as much right to condemn violent speech as do those who speak it.

It takes courage and integrity to speak against the loud voices of ignorance, intolerance, greed, vulgarity, and deception. Courage because you often stand alone. Integrity, because speaking up requires us to “give up” cherished prejudices that tempt us to remain silent and take our share of the rewards of ignorance, intolerance, greed, vulgarity, and deception.

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