We need less freedom of expression, not more

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
October 28, 2017 - 4:42am


Sometimes we should stop talking — just because we have freedom of speech doesn’t mean we have to use it.

We should try shutting up just for a day because all this free expression is killing us. It’s increasing racism, sexism, intolerance, and the threat and reality of war.

Before the dawn of the new technology — and I hate to keep blaming new technology, but we’re caught in the sandwich of its good effects and its bad ones, and I’m afraid the bad ones are coming out on top — we kept our darker instincts more or less concealed.

They simmered under the surface instead of bubbling out into the open. By the time we got around to getting out pen and paper and writing a letter to the editor, or making a phone call, the urge to vent passed, or at least we thought things through and exercised a little self-censorship. Or just kept it to ourselves.

Bad things happen when we become too free with our speech. We stop taking responsibility for our own words. We forget our humanity. We become feckless trolls, bullies and conspiracy theorists. We say horrible things to each other. We torment people who have gone through hell at mass shootings, or the brave women who share their stories of sexual assault. Or are of the wrong religion or colour, or who happen to annoy us, or who don’t fit our view of who is worthy of inclusion in our society.

We dash off an electronic letter to the local newspaper, comparing the drug-addicted — who can’t defend themselves — to rats. And the local newspaper — instead of dragging it to the trash folder where it belongs — prints it, and then defends it by saying it was just an opinionand lamely suggests it might prompt people to do something about the issue.

Under that sort of logic, the more outrageous and extreme we become in talking about social issues, the better, because it gets us talking, and helps us find solutions.

What’s actually happening, though, is that it takes us farther and farther from solutions, not closer. There’s a joke about two hunters who shoot a moose and begin dragging it towards their truck.

They’re having a real struggle, until another hunter happens by and suggests that instead of dragging the moose by the hind legs, they drag it from the front. That way, he explains, the antlers won’t dig into the ground and slow them down.

The two hunters take the third hunter’s advice and switch ends. After a while, they’ve covered a lot more distance and one of them says, “This is working really well.”

“Yes,” says his friend, “but we’re getting farther and farther from the truck.”

We’re going in the wrong direction. We’re coming up with the wrong answers. And the more we talk about it, the farther we’re getting from the truck.

We free ourselves from the shackles of truth and make things up that suit our own versions of reality. We normalize the demonization of victims. It becomes easy to call drug users, the poor, the unemployed, the under-educated, the members of another political party, another race, another church, the opposite sex, those with the wrong disease — rats. In short, we hurt each other.

We can legislate against hate speech, against counselling harm against another, against conspiring to commit a crime, against bullying, against slander and libel.

But there are limits to the effectiveness of legislation. We often talk of the need for free and open debate. Talk about solutions, we say. We can work it all out through frank, honest, open discussion, we say.

Well, we’ve botched that up. What we need is less discussion, not more. We need to put a sock in it. We need to go back to the days when we took it slow and easy, when we didn’t entertain ourselves by denigrating others through the easy vehicle of our phones and lap taps.

Our mothers used to tell us, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” When we’ve re-mastered that lost art, maybe we can talk some more.

Meanwhile, here’s the plan: the next time you feel the urge to exercise your freedom of speech by saying or writing something nasty or irresponsible, no matter how clever you think it is, or by expressing your racism, intolerance or misogyny, forego the pleasure. Even just once.And the next time the rest of us think we should respond to such a comment, let’s not.

It will do all of us a lot of good.