Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Word (or two) on Free Speech

Whenever free speech absolutists speak of "free speech" I often think what they mean is that "agree speech" is free speech, usually followed by a personal attack against those who disagree with them. From their perspective, "your 'free Speech' has limits, while theirs does not."

As the Biblical James writes: "...the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts." Sir James recognized that words can be used as weapons, and he recognized that words do not operate in a vacuum. Like everything else in our world, speech is governed by the laws of nature. The science used to describe the motion of objects using words, diagrams, numbers, graphs, and equations is called Kinematics. Since speech is language in motion, it is governed by the laws of motion as defined by Isaac Newton, the 17th century scientist.

According to Newton's third law, for every action force there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction force. Since forces always come in pairs, known as "action-reaction force pairs," speech, too, follows this rule. Someone who bullies another person, for example, can expect three types of opposite reactions of a varying nature. One reaction may be a passive retreat, which may lead to harm by undermining a victim's sense of self-worth, with any name-calling significantly reducing a person's self-esteem as recent studies on bullying and spousal verbal abuse has revealed. One of the these studies was conducted by Dr. Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, who researched bullying at Secondary Schools in the United Kingdom. His work dispels the well-known myth "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me".

A second reaction could be a verbal repartee in which the subject responds to the attacker tit-for-tat. These tit-for-tats can lead to a third reaction, which may turn physical or extremely violent if the targeted individual or group believe themselves to be a victim of verbal abuse or if a blaspheme is thrown at them like an offensive warhead. It's highly unlikely that a sober college professor, for example, will meander up to a 250-lb NFL linebacker and with conviction call him a "sissy" — at least where it can be heard.

Free speech absolutists are being disingenuous if they suggest they never modify their speech or their reporting under any circumstances. Our speech is governed by situational ethics, which is Newton's first law of motion: "An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force."

The object here is the tongue, of course, and an unbalanced force can be a social, political, economic, military or natural environment that requires the tongue to be restrained. Some humans may require either force or wisdom to know when restraint or silence is appropriate. Speech that is offensive is not free speech. It is just what it is, offensive. Those who require force to curb offensive speech will almost always find an opposing reaction that will assist them in doing so. It's a law of nature.

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