A lot has been said lately about freedom of speech. Some feel that one should be free to say whatever one wants to say, and to do so without censure or consequence.
Freedom of speech is vital to our American democracy, but words have consequences. Wars are begun and ended by words, not guns. Our rights and liberties are defined and defended by words, not guns. The decisions we make in communities and states about the rules by which we live together are expressed in words not bullets. The words we say to each other can build up or destroy. Whatever uses guns have in settling things between human beings, they are crude and, in the end, can only destroy.
Words are powerful, and they can be easily abused. They always have consequences. Whatever freedom of speech we have claimed as a right, it cannot include freedom from the consequences of exercising it. That’s because we intend the words we use to have consequences: to help and hurt, to ask and answer, to love and hate, to build up and tear down. We speak and write to have effect. To say of something said or written that it is of no consequence is simply nonsense.
The problem comes when the some of the consequences are not what we wanted. It’s exacerbated when the consequences rebound to slam into us. It’s partly the unintended consequences problem that we hear so much about, but unintended does not mean innocent. Ignorance, malice, and thoughtlessness lie just under a thin veneer of common sense and acceptable behavior. Our proclivity for showing disrespect to others is largely untamed. We say hurtful things and hope to avoid the rebounding consequences by adding that we didn’t intend to hurt. Disingenuous, that’s what it is.
For these reasons and more, we are accountable for the consequences of the words we use, regardless of our freedom to use them. We are subject to censure from others whether we like it or not. When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I am, or should be, subject to some degree of censure most every day because of my careless use of words in the exercise of my right to say whatever I want to say. But there are others among us who are deliberate in their use of words to oppress, abuse, and intimidate. It’s a brutal demonstration of the use of the power of words to subject others to personal tyranny, and the reason why a civilized society must be willing to censure and enforce accountability without jeopardizing freedom of speech. It’s a work in progress, something we do inconsistently and not well.