It’s Ok to Speak Your Mind As Long As You’re Willing to Accept the Consequences
I prefer people saying what’s on their mind, even if it’s racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or whatever. To be clear, this ABSOLUTELY does NOT mean I want to be friends with or even interact with these types of people. But rather, I’m lazy, so it helps me to quickly decide who I’d like to interact with instead of having to play some verbal cat and mouse game that often ends in disappointment and/or disgust.
In my mind, it’s always been understood that opening one’s mouth to say something is, essentially, opting in to a contract with the rest of the world wherein one agrees that while one is permitted to say what one is thinking or feeling, one is also opting in to the idea that others will NOT always react in a way one expects or deems favorable.
The other part of this basic social contract presumes, perhaps wrongly, that most folks are smart enough to understand that there are some instances wherein we can say what is on our mind, and other instances where we most certainly cannot. Trevor Timm of The Atlantic points out in his insightful article, that The Supreme Court of the United States
“…held that inflammatory speech--and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan--is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" (emphasis mine).”
What many people fail to remember is that context is key. For example, let’s pretend your best friends is Mexican, and they invite you over to their family’s home for dinner. It’s probably not the best time to suddenly repeat all these Mexican jokes you heard on YouTube earlier in the day.
But, apparently this basic social contract has either changed, or some folks are attempting to rewrite the fine print.
This is happening on both sides of the political spectrum to an annoyingly fascinating degree.
Good Intentions with Crappy Execution
On one side of the coin there are people with a bit of a liberal streak attempting to create a new way we talk about everything, from someone’s gender to creating safe spaces where some words are outright banned altogether. From my understanding, these new methods of communication are meant as a way not only to protect certain marginalized communities, but also as a way to alleviate discomfort within some when talking about certain, often politically charged topics.
This has irked folks who tend to be ardent and unequivocal proponents of the first amendment, with many complaining about the sensitive ears of college students and the advent of “free speech zones” or classes that now come with so-called “trigger warnings.” Some feel as though encouraging this type of communication amounts to little more than coddling.
In recent years, comedians have spoken about this too, with some noting the perceived censorship occurring on college campuses. Prominent comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are vocal critics toward this type of, what some might call political correctness. In 2015, Seinfeld gave an interview that quickly went viral, where he, in my opinion, ineloquently explained his frustration about performing on college campuses, saying “[The younger generation] just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”
However, George Carlin, one of stand-up comedy’s founding fathers, would possibly be expressing similar complaints if he were still alive. However, as with most people, Carlin’s (and Eddie Murphy’s) views were more nuanced than that, as he elucidates in a 1990 interview with Larry King, explaining that,
“Comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, people who abuse their power. Women and gays and immigrants, to my way of thinking, are underdogs.”
But still, Carlin was a noted defender of the First Amendment, and for very good reason. In that same interview with Larry King, he speaks of controversial comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay’s comedy, saying that while he may not agree with his jokes or views, “He can certainly say whatever he wants.” But even just browsing through some of Carlin’s bits on YouTube, Carlin’s bit on “Soft Language” still reveals an undertone of where many current comedians are coming from.
However, I prefer Patton Oswalt’s slightly more diplomatic approach when it comes to talking about this.
Oswalt, and many other comedians are pointing out how many people who subscribe to this type of thinking tend to take themselves a little too seriously, focusing too much on the words being said instead of what is in someone’s heart, sometimes even at the expense of an ally ready to fight for a similar cause.
While I am all for people of any age expanding their minds and seeking to create a culture where people can adequately tune their minds into whatever event is happening so as to act appropriately, you can’t expect everyone to fall in line or feel the same way. Nor can we also predict the consequences of this type of behavior too, as sometimes it can come into conflict with another idea protected under the constitution.
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A good example of this is what happened in the wake of Jerry Seinfeld’s comments. Sometime after the comments were said, a college student wrote Seinfeld a letter that also quickly went viral. In the letter, the student attempted to explain how “…if you’re going to come to my college and perform in front of me, be prepared to write up a set that doesn’t just offend me, but has something to say.”
I think the intentions of the student was an attempt at creating a teachable moment and explain how tastes in what people find funny are evolving.
But many people, especially comedians, felt like the student was telling Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians (and clean comedians at that) in the world, how to do comedy. That didn’t sit well with some, especially late night comic Bill Maher, who blasted the young man over TV.
Like I said in the beginning, it’s ok to speak what’s on your mind, but if you’re going to get upset about how someone reacts, then clearly you’re not ready to accept the consequences of the action of speaking what’s on your mind.
If it’s any consolation, at least many on college campuses are thinking about and attempting to find answers to many of these dilemmas, as a New York Times article explains .
What College Students Really Think About Free Speech
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I mentioned Bill Maher in particular because he has also faced some (perhaps deserved) scrutiny for something he said, as a white guy that is never ok to say. Maher got in much trouble for saying the n-word as a joking response to another guest. In the beginning, he tried to spin it, essentially fighting the growing tide of backlash. However, once he realized that type of response wasn’t going to cut it, he wisely used a future episode as a teachable moment, being lectured by Ice-Cube about the context of what Maher thought was an off-the-cuff joke.
However, what many people, even comedians forget, is that language does evolve over time, just as culture. As a culture, we fluctuate what we deem appropriate to say.
An example of this is the continuous (and dumb) debate about what men are and most certainly are not allowed to say to women in public. This is especially prevalent in the wake of the #metoo movement. I think this is a dumb debate because I’ve never understood how guys have gotten away with saying some of the things they’ve said over the years. In my mind, it’s never been ok to walk up to a woman and say something about her body. However, much to the chagrin of many women, this type of catcall culture was common in the 50’s and 60’s workplace, among other places. Now, not so much, due to evolving laws classifying that type of behavior as sexual harassment.
Comedian Jen Kirkman excellently explains in her Netflix stand-up special “Just Keep Living" not only why catcalling is annoying and stupid, but also points out how and why this type of interaction makes women feel scared and vulnerable, noting how sometimes, when women don’t act the way men would like them to, men tend to get frustrated and angry.
It bears repeating that, especially for guys, if one cannot handle a rejection or whatever reaction one deems less than desirable, then one should not have opened their mouth in the first place, because it will only reveal your desperation, ignorance or both.
However, even though language does evolve, it is important to remember a powerful insight from George Carlin, as he eloquently elucidates the differentiation between words (even the so called bad ones) and the people speaking these words.
Talking Shit to Cause Trouble
Speaking of the people behind saying certain derisive words, this brings us to the other side of the political spectrum, where folks with more conservative leanings tend to say dumb &/or racist things they believe are provocative, but then hide behind labels of satire, performance art or free speech.
Some are doing this in attempts to troll others, while others are doing this because they’re just assholes. Either way, however, it’s interesting to see how quickly these types of people cry “first amendment rights” or “freedom of speech,” as if this is supposed to offer some sort of immunity from the reactions of others.
In Talib Kweli Greene's insightful and detailed article, “Free Speech or Die?” he uses the example of murders by Jeremy Christian and his subsequent trial as a much larger example of illustrating the dichotomy between extremism and free speech.
In the article, Talib paints a damning picture of a man who essentially decided “that if people would not allow him to be a hateful bigot to a Muslim teenage girl, then he had the right to murder them in the name of free speech.”
Kweli goes on in his article to explain how Christian is technically allowed to shout abuse at a woman wearing a hijab, noting that although it is awful, that type of behavior is in fact allowed by law under the first amendment. But he goes on to share how
“Using free speech to confront Christian in that situation is also allowed by law, and that action should be encouraged and applauded by decent people. Christian decided that free speech applied only to him and that anyone who uses free speech to question his behavior deserves death. Obviously, he is an extremist, and what he did would be the opposite of what the principles of free speech represent. The problem is that many on the far right, the side adjacent to white nationalist and Nazi types like Christian, use the principle of free speech as an excuse to say whatever they want without consequence. Like Christian, they think free speech applies only to what they want to say and hear.”
This about sums up how some on the far right view free speech. Then, when things don’t go their way, those who aren’t trolling employ disgusting and annoying tactics as a way to either distract from or flat out nullify what they're saying.
Salon’s Sophia A. McClennen wrote an opinion piece about how many are trying to use what she has dubbed “The Colbert Defense,” to excuse their shitty behavior. In the article she points out how some conservative figureheads and pundits routinely claim to be “j/k” or even attempt to label themselves as satirists. In one example, she points out how Alex Jones attempted to label himself a performance artists during a court hearing.
“During his custody hearing, InfoWars' Alex Jones tried to suggest that he is not liable for things he says on his show because he is just a performance artist. Jones’ attorney David Minton described Jones' work as “satire” and “sarcasm.” And yet Jones certainly doesn’t present himself as a satirist to his audience of over 3 million. So the cry of satire in this instance is just a lot of hot air.”
So it should come as no surprise to Jones or others when they’re called out. Just like it shouldn’t come as a shock that there might be some repercussions to those who marched with the white nationalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. Again, according to the first amendment and other court rulings related to it, these folks have a right to march. But to get offended or upset when someone on Twitter is outing others who participated in that public march (which could potentially cost someone their job?) is ridiculous on many different levels.
Speaking of Alex Jones, the supposed satirist supreme, he’s finding himself in even more legal trouble beyond a simple custody hearing. Apparently, Jones is being sued for defamation because he falsely accused someone else of the heinous Parkland School shootings. I’m sure he’ll make a big deal about it and many of his avid listeners will be offended, even though it’s ridiculous to expect there to be no repercussions from doing or saying dumb things that, much more importantly, happen to not be true.
Just as it’s equally ridiculous to always expect to be able to speak your mind in public (which includes social media and comments sections online) without reactions or consequence. It’s complete BS when people of a mostly conservative background complain they are being targeted in some sort of online bias because many accounts that espouse hate are being banned.
But as Talib Kweli Greene concludes in his article,
“If what you choose to say or write gets you banned from a community, yelled at, fired from your job, or called mean names, your right to free speech is not being violated. You are just receiving the karmic consequences of using your free speech to advocate for hate. There are places in the world where free speech is truly being suppressed. Your Twitter account is not one of them. Your college campus is not one of them. Use your free speech to show solidarity with those who are actually being oppressed instead.”
Like Greene, I also do NOT in any way support or call for people punching alt-right leaders in the face, or any act of violence against others. However, also like Greene I will chuckle if I see it happen in a video, or just offer a bemused
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ should some ultra-conservative or alt-right Nazi complain about not being able to finish their tour de dumb on college campuses because of protests (regardless if there’s violence involved or not). I will also simply offer a bemused sigh should others decide to start advertising boycotts as a way to silence someone who says something stupid, unlike Bill Maher. Personally, I think going after someone’s wallet is an ingenious way to make an idiot be quiet. Hey man, isn’t this is how capitalism and the free market work?
Anyone is welcome to criticize me for this stance because I also recognize it’s not entirely a complete denouncement that type of behavior. But again, as I said before, if anyone can’t handle the repercussions when they speak what’s on their mind, maybe they shouldn’t be speaking in the first place.
If you resonated with this article in some way, feel free to share with others or highlight what spoke to you the most. Hell, highlight and talk to me about what you didn’t like either. Up to you.
******This article has been updated to include Carlin’s thoughts from a Larry King interview in 1990.******
*******This article has been updated further to include a description and link to two videos that have been removed by certain social media and video sharing platforms.*******
Below are two other articles I’ve written which speak on similar subjects, however, they’re more about thinking and offer some tips on how to think and navigate through this growing polarization in which many are finding themselves. Feel free to read or bookmark for later. But as always, no obligation, no stress, no worries. Thank you for reading.
In the Age of Information, Many of Us Know Little
“….information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”