Free Speech is Never Free
Free speech is a misnomer. We Americans are so obsessed by money that we apply economic terms to non-monetary things. Hell, in the '60s we even deluded ourselves into thinking love was free. Love always costs us something, even if it's worth everything we give.
Speech, too, always costs us something. It is never free. Speech can cost us our reputations, our friends, our livelihood...even our freedom. Now, that's ironic!
Thinking ourselves somehow above the baseness of punishing speech, we Americans remember Voltaire for his political dissent. It earned him time in the Bastille, on several occasions. We remember Fyodor Dostoyevsky who dared to challenge Russian political elites. He faced a mock execution and excruciatingly harsh imprisonment for his "free speech." We pat ourselves on the back as an enlightened culture that celebrates free speech. But do we really?
Let's ask William Lloyd Garrison, jailed in the late 1800s for his free speech condemning slavers (they called it libel). Or Emma Goldman who was arrested for opposing conscription during WW I. What about Rose Pastor Stokes who was sentenced to ten years for writing in a private letter, "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers"? Not even private criticism is free.
Oh, we're far more advanced now, you might argue. But are we really? Isn't our "cancel culture" on the ass end of a wave of very public cancelations for free speech? At least I hope we're nearing the end. Still, some in society will always be intolerant of difference, no matter what it says to the contrary.
Nevertheless, those with the boldness to say what others will not, to voice dissent, to point out injustice, to spark rigorous debate by sharing contrary views...these people count the cost first, and willingly pay it. These speech pioneers are often measured harshly while they live, but then posthumously championed for their courage.
Today we honor such champions of "free speech": the Founding Fathers, William Gladstone, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Alexei Navalny. Each of these courageous people paid a high price for their disruptive speech, and it would dishonor them to call their speech free. For some of them, it cost everything.
Let me throw out a caution flag, though. Honoring free speech is not the same thing as defending verbal vomit. Some people really ought to shut their pie holes. They ought to count the cost of spewing their mental cesspools into our ear holes.
Some speech must be disruptive because, well, much deserves to be disrupted. But some things are better left unsaid. Or unthought. We might all benefit by following this little nugget of wisdom shared with me a few years ago--"Before speaking, ask yourself these two questions: Is it kind? Is it necessary?" If the answer is "no" to either one, well then...zip it!
Disruptive speech is absolutely necessary, and it very well may be kind. It's far kinder to speak up against injustice than to let it continue unhindered. But not all speech is kind and necessary, and in these occasions things are better left unsaid.
We don't have to open our mouths to confirm others' sneaky suspicions that we're fools (wise words, Prez Abe!). We won't say everything right, but that's okay. We simply must recognize that our words are costly. And if our words are costly, then let's let them count for something real. Let's let them shake social apathy. Let's let them disrupt the status quo. Let's let them rescue the oppressed and defend the defenseless.
Perhaps if we first count the cost, we won't speak so freely. Perhaps if we comprehend that speech is costly, we'll be sure we make our words count.