The two-edged sword of free speech

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been listening to this year’s public debates, and reflects that the precious gift of free speech can be a two-edged sword.

(Lange) I suppose you could play tennis alone, but it wouldn’t do much to improve your game. Might make you a little strange after a while, too. You very much need someone batting the ball back at you in order to realize your potential.

The First Amendment is helpful in that regard. Each of us, no matter how brilliant or stupid he may be, how versed or ignorant, how genteel or coarse, is guaranteed the right to express himself publicly. Most of us are so accustomed to this “right” that we can hardly conceive of living without it, though many millions do.

This right, of course, carries the responsibility to refrain from its exercise when it can cause harm. And it can be a weapon that, like a handgun, more often wounds its user than his intended targets. Just as we are free to express our genius, we may instead reveal our utter lack of it. But that’s what makes the game more interesting.

A year ago, the editorial page of New Hampshire’s “Concord Monitor” remarked the passing of William Davis Cobourn, a notorious writer of letters to the editor. Cobourn was one of those people whose return address provokes an automatic “Here we go again!” response when they turn up on editors’ desks. It’s safe to say that Cobourn was racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and self-righteous. Not to mention prolific.

Readers often demanded to know how the paper could print such awful stuff, which of course gave Cobourn another argument – against the defenders of human rights who wanted him squelched. I can think of no issue but that one on which he and I agreed. But the editorial page lost some of its excitement with him gone.

Why, after all, did we practice debate in high school, often arguing for propositions with which we personally disagreed? Why did our schools teach us the fallacies to which logic is often sacrificed – beginning with the one I’ve already mentioned, the argumentum ad hominem? Because even in a free and open society, games have rules; and you don’t attack an argument by going after its proponent.

Personally, I can’t imagine attempting to coerce another’s opinion; or enjoying the company of people who all agree with me and each other; or declaring those with whom I disagree to be benighted, damned, or wayward. This is not a universal sentiment, as was obvious from another item on the same “Monitor” editorial page.

A woman had written a letter decrying homosexuality as “sin in the face of God and his people.” She closed: “There’s going to be a spiritual revival in New England, and those who don’t get aboard are going to perish. Are you prepared for that?”

See what I mean? Under free speech, you can make anything of yourself that you like.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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