We Don't Have Freedom of Speech

Americans' favorite freedom may be freedom of speech, but they don't understand freedom or speech.

Last week, a group of violent extremists slaughtered twelve people at the headquarters of a satirical Parisian magazine (Charlie Hebdo) for printing offensive cartoons of Muhammad. In response, many folks around the world showed solidarity on social media with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie or "I am Charlie." But Americans, in particular, weren't showing support for the victims of terrorism; they were identifying with the magazine's position on free speech.

Some news agencies like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post have gone so far as to reprint the cartoons of Islam's prophet. The goal was to show that the pen is mightier than the sword and terrorism can never defeat free speech. To a large extent, that's true: control is an illusion. No one can force anyone else to do anything, and coercion only works if it can convince others that the illusion of control is real. But no one is arguing with the power of free speech--as Charlie Hebdo tragically demonstrated. What we should be arguing is whether having the power gives us the right to use it.

The power of words is practically limitless. Words can create worlds and bury kingdoms, foster love and provoke hate, inspire progress and reinforce despair. In a way, their power is like nuclear energy. Given the right controls and conditions, they can change the world for the better. But without any restrictions, they can make the world far worse. And in a weaponized form, they can even destroy it. So when words are given absolute freedom, they're more likely to do evil, than good.

However, for freedom-worshiping Americans, any rule for speech is taken as a rule for thought and identity. So the only way to be true to themselves, or truly free, is to be able to say whatever they want however they want. And this operates under the mistaken assumption that complete freedom is actually possible.

We're all a slave to something. Every human being is bound to their need for air, water, and food. Some of us are dependent on medication or a wheelchair. And finding freedom from one thing only makes us a slave to another. Like when children grow up only to find out that their freedom from their parents has been replaced by slavery to professors, bosses, and Uncle Sam.

Relationships are no different. For example, one of my favorite bands is Alice in Chains. But my wife not only dislikes them, she feels very uncomfortable with their music. So, out of deference to her, I never play them when she's around. Even though I have the freedom to play whatever I want because no one can make me do anything, I've chosen to respect her preferences and sacrifice my freedom for her sake.

That's what love does: it puts the needs of others first. And while it can't dictate what we say, it can determine how we say it. Love doesn't deceive, but it doesn't purposely offend either. Those folks that find organized religion to be a puerile delusion are welcome to their opinion, but they're not welcome to express it with derision anymore than Christians can with agnosticism or atheism. That's not censorship, that's discretion; it's speech filtered through love. Because truly loving people don't have freedom of speech.

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