Freedom of Speech vs Common Courtesy

Candid Commentary CJ Clark

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]T[/su_dropcap]HERE ARE TWO articles in my local paper today. One details the invocation given by Phil Robertson at Texas Motor Speedway, asking that we “put a Jesus man in the White House” who, ostensibly, will preserve our Bibles and guns. Okay, well maybe that isn’t over the top, particularly given the stereotype of the Nascar fan. It’s pretty opinionated, but is doesn’t take the troubling next steps of demeaning anyone who disagrees.

But the second article, describes a billboard that mysteriously appeared in the tourist section of Florida’s AIA screams “Islam, Bloody Islam Doomed by its Doctrine.” The cool thing though, is that the local Islamic Center is coordinating a meeting with other faith groups next week to work together to show a unified front for peace and unity. That’s a good outcome for a sad commentary in our little tourist town.

As I was thinking through these two articles, both of whom contradict something basic in me – the desire to honor others’ thoughts and beliefs no matter how different from mine – I couldn’t help but think back to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris where journalists for the satirical newspaper were gunned down in the name of Islam. The murder was retaliation for making fun of and posting pictures of (forbidden in many Islamic sects) Mohammed in the magazine.

Hear me say this. There is no excuse for murdering human beings. I found it appalling when some pundits began to minimize the horror of the shootings by blaming the newspaper for ridiculing Islam. No. It doesn’t work like that. That’s not who we are – or who we should be.

freedom speech flagThis is my opinion, but our constitutional right to freedom of speech was probably not originally intended to allow people to say mean, spiteful and ugly things about other people and their beliefs. I think it was intended to provide a platform so that everyone has a right to voice their opinion, even if it conflicts with the status quo. This protection spreads power throughout the population of the country, and provides an outlet where differing opinions can be aired without fear of retaliation. It prohibits any one perspective from shutting down others. It is legislation. It is [or should be] inviolate.

But common courtesy? Ah, isn’t that where we should somehow draw the line between mean, ugly and spiteful – and having the right to disagree? This isn’t legislation, and it isn’t even a clear line. Mean, ugly and spiteful take all shapes and intentions and truly can’t be policed. One person’s “mean” may be another’s way of speaking.

The nature of communication has to be molded and framed by judgment and values. Judgment and values aren’t legislated, they are taught and framed throughout one’s life. They are learned through trial and error – hurting someone else’s feelings can have a profound effect on how I present myself in the future.

Clearly, we have huge disparities in interpretation of common courtesy, in this country and in our global world. Would it make sense for us, rather than enacting more restrictive legislation, to put a plan in place to build a set of core values?

We could start with the family. Parents could teach their children to honor and respect differences. They could instill rewards and consequences for abusing their core values. Parents could influence the schools to teach children how to communicate from a position of respect, rather than prejudice. Communities could search for solutions that benefit the entire community, not just those with power and influence. And our country would be populated by individuals who are skilled at dialogue, at finding common ground and at working toward the greater good.

Okay, enough dreaming. Time to move on.

But, in my humble opinion, common courtesy has been lost. Can we recover? Only if we want to.


CJ Clark
CJ Clark
EXPLORING issues beyond the sound bites of today’s news coverage and challenging the status quo. It’s about questions, issues and answers. And it’s about time …

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  1. CJ – I have come to realize that to have freedom of speech, we will have to hear things with which we disagree or take exception. But freedom of speech is so important to our democratic way of life that we MUST accept this fact. Would it be better that we sat down and listened to each other and learn from our difference with commom courtesy as the mediator – absolutely. But, if I can’t engage someone in this manner (and it is getting harder to do), I can choice to walk away. I will do this to ensure your freedom of speech is respected – and that is what is really important.

  2. I don’t find fault with what you say, CJ. But, I don’t recall seeing any cartoons about Mohammed, or billboards about Islam until after the Muslims started blowing up buildings and lopping off heads. Funny about that isn’t it?

    • I can’t refute what you are saying, Ken. I guess I’m just trying to understand where we’ve come to, and I don’t like anything that tells me who or what I need to be. CJ