Free Speech is not Free from Consequences

All actions have consequences, including how we express our ideas and ourselves.  Often our expressions have unforeseen or unintended consequences.  Yesterday’s attack on the US Consulate in Libya that took the lives of four people is reported to have been a retaliatory response to a YouTube video.  The video disrespects Islam by ridiculing Muhammad.  I haven’t added my clicks to the view count, and I’m uninterested in commenting on the video itself, but I am interested in the consequences of free speech.

All expressions—especially those that reveal something we find real and true—expose us to some vulnerability.  Will the hearers disagree?  Will disagreement diminish me in their sight?  Will disagreement prompt action, like distancing from me or harming me?  Of course, in a presidential election season, we don’t need reminding that some expressions are not true and are designed to expose someone else’s vulnerability.  And some expressions are designed to provoke disagreement.  Some are designed to manipulate us or to bait us to respond in a way that benefits the speaker, if only to garner notoriety.  Perhaps the quip, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” turns out to be deadly after all.

Our First Amendment only protects free speech from government interference (or legal action) to the extent that the speech does not cause harm to others.  Specifically, speech that threatens others, incites immanent lawless action, states facts falsely, is obscene or sexually exploits children is not protected.  Happily for writers, speech owned by others merits no First Amendment protection, either.

The diversity of opinion on what qualifies for protection and on appropriate consequences provides the real grist for discussion.  Ted Nugent is legally free to make public political statements so long as he doesn’t threaten anybody or incite lawless action, but that does not exempt him from consequences like losing an employment contract.  How about the violence that saturates US entertainment—does it not incite more violence?  Isn’t it demonstrably harmful to our kids?  Tipper Gore made that argument, God love her, and her efforts met resounding defeat and castigation.

Personally, I have a hard time advocating limits on any artistic expression that a creator finds to be real or true, even if I find that expression upsetting or manipulative.  Embracing another’s truth and reality can expand our own.  On the other hand, I also believe we each carry responsibility for the footprint we leave in the world.  It is the people who threw grenades in the Libyan attack who are responsible for the deaths and damage, not the filmmaker.  The filmmaker’s contribution was to throw disrespect like a grenade.  Expressions that lack respect for others can do no good.  They leave only the footprints of destruction and human diminishment.

Join the conversation.  Do you think the filmmaker did the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded global theater?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.