Freedom of Speech is No Compulsion to Speak

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

What’s on my mind:

As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.

Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.

It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.

I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.

I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.

This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.

Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.

What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.

Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.

Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.

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