Freedom For The Speech We Hate

Freedom For The Speech We Hate

by

Marc Colten

For the past several weeks I have been agonizing over a dilemma. I recognize that I am quite fortunate to live in a country where I can even have this problem. I can’t imagine the citizens of North Korea facing the same existential crisis. This is my problem:

freedom-of-speechThis is Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech”, part of his “Four Freedoms” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, and it is one of the few times I truly had a problem with Rockwell.

Look at the scene, reminding us of the precious freedom we had and for which our soldiers were fighting. Unfortunately, Rockwell missed the point. It’s true we cannot see everyone in the room, but in 1943 this small town (the speaker has a “Town Meeting” agenda in his pocket) was less likely to be as diverse as they are today. Look at the man to his right, looking up at him admiringly. His father perhaps? In any event, no one is trying to silence him. He is not being ejected from the room. Are we to believe that this man is saying anything other than America is great, the war is just and mom’s apple pie is a the best dessert? Rockwell was certainly not suggesting that this man was protesting sending our soldiers overseas to fight and die for foreigners and Jews. Yet many Americans had that view, more publically before Pearl Harbor, but even in 1943 there still had to be many of them.

Now, today, we are faced with the public airing of the same views and symbols of the people we were fighting back then. But would we silence these people if we could? You cannot regulate thought or even expression. Even in concentration camps the condemned prisoners created art in secret while they were forbidden to show them, or to discuss their views. We hated Trump for his attempt to silence a Latino reporter, mocking his background and his Spanish language network and for trying to replace a judge for his Mexican heritage. We were certainly, and justifiably, angered by the Right Wing response to Black Lives Matter who were reviled and ridiculed for their anger at police violence.

So what do we do when it is speech and thought we hate? Do we ban the swastika, or the Confederate flag? Do we ban speeches and marches or demand some form of ID to buy Tiki torches? We know we cannot, and should not, control thought. Or do we? Do we think that suppressing expression will isolate those people, convincing them that they are alone so that their hate dies out from loneliness? Or will it simply refine it, making it more vicious, fueled by proof that they are being persecuted?

I have been aware of these people for decades. As a Jew I see myself as the target of so much of their hatred. But what am I to do? What am I to think? I deplore these people but that is my freedom of thought. This article is my freedom of speech. But I find myself terrified by my own beliefs. Is my acceptance the same as approval? We must not be silent, but neither should they, no matter how much we wish they were.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Are we ready for where this belief might take us? Trump has proven that anger and hatred are strong selling points. Politics might never be the same again. Politicians are faced with a problem unique to their profession. Do they want to do the job, or do they want to keep the job? Trump’s form of demagoguery might very well become the norm by politicians who convince themselves that only by playing to hatred and bigotry can they stay in office to accomplish anything. I honestly don’t believe “Profiles in Courage” will be updated in our lifetimes. With only moral suasion on our side, there may be no good outcome.

I didn’t write this article to say that I had the answer, only that I was terrified by the question itself. Only in time will we have an answer.