Paying For Free Speech

In the wake of the events in Tucson, AZ,  information about the motivations of the shooter was not readily available, but the punditocracy was quick to blame his actions on the influence of the anti-government rhetoric that has been flooding the airwaves in the last two years.

Perhaps it was a recognition of the fact that a certain line had been crossed in the exercise of the First Amendment. But as political figures in the crosshairs (and I use that term advisedly) of media scrutiny scrambled to defend themselves, the knee jerk reaction has been calls to curtail our freedom of expression and the imposition of absurd standards of political correctness. One television anchor even felt the need for an on-air apology for the inadvertent use of loaded language.

Ironically, last month also saw the controversy over the amendment of Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Over 200 references to the n-word were replaced with the word “slave.” Aside from the fact that “slave” is hardly likely to escape the unhappy connotations of African American history, and that tampering with a classic is reprehensible, when did we become a nation of verbal cowards? What about context?

Free speech is part of the foundation of the United States. We may be disgusted by the incendiary rants of radio hosts like Limbaugh and Savage, but the fact that they can get away with calling the President a fascist and a Nazi (never mind the logic) should be, oddly enough, a matter of pride for the American republic. It is a testament to the health of our society that the bile of hate speech can cause nothing more than the occasional ripple in the robust and largely placid psyche of this nation.

Yes, there will always be the disturbed individual who feeds on the atmosphere of fear and distrust engendered by the irresponsible bloviations of attention seekers. But that kind of deranged personality does not need the invocation of “death panels” or “government takeovers” to snap; any provocation will do. Rather, preventing such breakdowns requires increased attention to mental health issues and restricting arms and ammunition for civilian use.

If this recent tragedy encourages civility in public discourse, then some good will have come out of it. But to use it as a cudgel to smash one of the pillars of our democracy would be just as tragic, if you know what I mean.

Vidya Pradhan

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