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Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Cost Of Free Speech

Free speech.

Two simple words that pack a powerful punch. Almost every single one of us believes in the idea of having free speech, but some of us don't quite understand what that right exactly is. And, don't worry, I'll be explaining that little statement a little later.

In recent events, the debates surrounding free speech have only intensified after a series of events regarding some people in the talk radio and celebrity world.

I'm sure by now we have heard all about what happened on Rush Limbaugh's radio show just recently. A woman by the name of Sandra Fluke, a law student from Georgetown University, testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in support of mandated health coverage for contraceptives. Now, there are some out there who are reading that previous sentence and believing that Ms. Fluke's crusade might not be something that you would support. Some might think that it is the absolute worst idea that was ever coined. And that's fine, because the power of free speech allows us to say and think that. But there's a huge difference between disagreeing on an issue at hand and doing what Rush Limbaugh did on his radio show.

On February 29, 2012, Limbaugh heard about Sandra Fluke's tale, and immediate went on the airwaves to issue his thoughts on the matter, and let's just say that it wasn't pretty. I don't even want to repost his exact tirade on this blog because I myself find his comments to be quite vile. Though, I really don't need to, as they've been broadcast all over various media sources. If you really want to know what he said, just enter Limbaugh and Fluke in on a Google search. All should be revealed then.

But here's where the debate over free speech comes into play. Certainly, free speech is a right that many of us in the world have. If you happen to live in the United States, it is a constitutional right to have the power of free speech. And many people seem to hold onto that right the same way that a child holds on to their favourite blanket. They squeeze onto it so tightly, and are willing to fight to the death to keep that right. In most cases, I find it to be absolutely admirable. However, there is a fine line between being honourable with free speech and being shameful and hurtful. And my honest opinion is that Limbaugh was being very hurtful and very shameful, and not only crossed that line, but attached a set of explosives to that line and blew it apart into a billion pieces.

And, this leads to my tenth Thursday Confession...and it's a long and complex one.

THURSDAY CONFESSION #10: I am a firm believer in the power of free speech, and I believe that we all have the right to make our ideas and thoughts known. I also believe in using the power of free speech to challenge the ideas of others in a diplomatic and calm manner. However, I do NOT believe in using the power of free speech as an excuse to tear someone else down or make hurtful comments because I don't believe that hiding behind the phrase 'free speech' entitles anybody to act like a jerk.

Quite complex, no?

It is how I feel though. I'll try to explain my thoughts the best way that I can using the Rush Limbaugh incident.

Rush Limbaugh having a radio show allows him to have a slew of opinions. Anybody who has ever hosted a radio program such as Howard Stern, Sean Hannity, or even Rick Dees have used their programming to bring forth certain ideas and beliefs that they have. I don't have a problem with this for the most part. I might not necessarily agree with the thoughts that they have (and in the case of Limbaugh, as a largely liberal thinker, it's hard for me to find a whole lot of common ground between myself and Limbaugh), but the fact that he has them is nothing that I can change. And if Rush didn't agree with the ideas that Sandra Fluke was bringing forth to the table (which obviously he did not), all he had to do was say so. He might still have gotten some flak for having an opinion that went against what others believed, but at least it would not have caused such a kerfuffle. He could have come up with a list of facts and figures and blended it with his strong opinions to come up with a rebuttal that could have made people at least think about it in a logical way. Instead, he took the cowardly way out and responded to Fluke's plan with vulgarity and hostility.

And what did it get him in the end? It got his name being lambasted in the media, his show being dropped from some talk radio stations, and many of his advertisers pulling their sponsorship for the program. I certainly hope his comments were worth it for him in the long run.

Oh, I should also add that Limbaugh did apologize for his comments towards Fluke just a few days after saying them...but for many people, it was too little, too late. While I was never really a fan of Limbaugh in the first place, this incident kind of paints him in an even worse colour in my mind.

With Rush Limbaugh, it wasn't his strong opinions that I had a problem with. It was the way he presented them. Period.

I mean, certainly we all have had our experiences in which the opinions that we have sometimes come across the wrong way, and it ends up getting us in trouble. I've been on both sides of that. But, it's a lesson learned the hard way, and we move on. It certainly isn't the first time Limbaugh has come under fire for his opinions, and as long as his radio show is allowed to continue, it probably won't be the last.

Another person who has come under fire recently for his strong opinions is former child star, Kirk Cameron. Kirk Cameron is probably best known for his role as eldest Seaver child, Mike, on the long-running sitcom 'Growing Pains'. These days, he has become an active Christian evangelist who has starred in the various films associated with the “Left Behind” book series.

And this has lead to Cameron being on the receiving end of some controversy as well.

Certainly controversy over Kirk's beliefs seemed to begin when he was still on 'Growing Pains'. While it was never really confirmed as being true or false, reportedly he was the one who was behind the ouster of 'Growing Pains' recurring character Julie Costello (played by Julie McCullough) when he objected to her posing nude for Playboy magazine (she was the February 1986 centerfold, just in case you were wondering). But, Kirk did apologize to the other Growing Pains cast members for that time, citing a lack of maturity on his part. After all, he himself was in his late teens when the incident took place, and we all make a lot of bad judgment calls when we are teenagers. Not making excuses for him by far, but at least it seemed as though he was learning from his mistakes (although McCullough refuses to forgive Cameron for what transpired).

FUN FACT:  Kirk Cameron apparently spent the first seventeen years of his life as an atheist!

But then Cameron appeared as a guest on The Piers Morgan Show earlier this month, and once again, the concept of free speech was highly debated.

It all started when Piers Morgan asked Kirk Cameron a question about the subject of gay marriage and homosexuality. Kirk answered the question honestly, stating that according to him, homosexuality was something that he did not agree with, stating that he felt it was “unnatural, detrimental, and ultimately destructive to foundations of civilization.”

Wow. Where to start with this?

First things first, my thoughts. I have to strongly disagree with Cameron's thoughts. I don't think there is anything wrong with a person being gay, straight, bi-sexual, asexual. Not a thing wrong with it whatsoever. I am sorry that some religious people feel that homosexuality is bad, because I'm sure that a lot of people feel the same way about closed-minded religious people who claim to love everyone except when they feel the Bible informs them differently.

(Not implying that Kirk Cameron is one of those people, of course...just speaking in a general sense.)

But, do I feel that Kirk Cameron's opinions should be censored? No. Kirk Cameron can believe whatever Kirk Cameron wants to because Kirk Cameron knows what is best for Kirk Cameron and not anybody else.

Wow, how many times can I type the words Kirk Cameron in a single sentence?

I guess my feelings for Kirk Cameron's thoughts are eerily similar to Piers Morgan's. Piers commended Cameron for sticking to his beliefs and not sugar coating them (and, reluctantly, I have to agree with this because as much as I disagree with what Cameron is saying, at least he is owning up to it). Even better, Kirk Cameron, to his credit, worded and phrased his beliefs in a way that didn't have the name calling and distaste that Rush Limbaugh used in his own scandal (even though I still feel that his beliefs are very much closed-minded and not very well thought out). But, make no mistake, Piers Morgan did not agree with Kirk's opinion, and made it quite clear. I don't particularly like what Kirk had to say myself...but I'm not going to deny him the right to state what might be an unpopular opinion. Nobody has the right to do that.

Besides, if anything, Kirk Cameron's appearance on Piers Morgan beautifully illustrates the second part of my confession. I believe that we all have the right to use our power of free speech in a way to challenge the ideas put out by other people, especially if the ideas contradict or conflict with our own belief systems...provided that the forum for the conflict resolution is diplomatic and calm.

I often joke that whenever I have an opinion that is controversial and I make it public, it often ends up with all of us holding hands in a circle singing “Kumbaya”. That's because in a lot of cases, it happens to be true. My group of friends and I are such that we listen to all points of view very clearly and respectfully before forming opinions. And, yes, sometimes our opinions can clash, and we argue about it. By the end though, we manage to reach a common ground, and we 'hug it out', or something to that nature. That's not to say that we're automatically going to change our minds radically to suit the other person and vice versa...but if it means that we understand each other a lot better, I'd call it a victory. No yelling. No swearing. Just calm and rational debate. The way it should be.

Unfortunately, some people seem to believe that the right to free speech means that they are right, everyone else is wrong, and if they scream loud enough and say the most obnoxious things, they'll eventually sway people over to their side. But, in many cases, this is not the right way to go. If anything, it just makes the opposition to their cause grow even stronger. (For further reference of this point, Google the term 'Westboro Baptist Church'.)

And, in regards to Kirk Cameron's case, the reception has been about fifty-fifty. For every person who has condemned Cameron for his opinions and his thoughts on homosexuality, there's another person who has supported Cameron for standing by his own beliefs. In Cameron's case, there is a fine line that exists between tasteful and tasteless, and the way I picture it, depending on the side of the arena you are sitting on, Cameron could lean towards one way or the other. We all have the right to see it the way we want to see it. It might not be the same way somebody else views it, but as long as we hold on to our own point of view, there's nothing wrong with that.

Now picture people on both sides arming themselves with bags of rocks...and having people on both sides tossing rocks at Kirk Cameron on that tightrope, hoping to make him fall off the rope onto the side that they feel best describes him. But in the melee, the rocks that one side throws ends up striking people on the other side of the arena, hurting them. Their friends retaliate by throwing their rocks twice as hard. But instead of throwing them at Cameron, they throw the rocks at the people on the other side, and before you know it, both sides are so busy stoning the other that they have completely forgotten about the man on the tightrope dangling for dear life.

The above situation best describes some of the Internet forums and celebrity interviews that I've come across in light of the Kirk Cameron scandal, as well as some of the responses given by the general public.

Certainly in the media, there have been celebrities who have taken to Twitter to make their thoughts known about Cameron. “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, “Glee” star Jane Lynch, and even two of Cameron's “Growing Pains” co-stars (Alan Thicke and Tracey Gold) have all spoke out against Cameron's comments, stating that his beliefs do not reflect theirs in any way. Cameron's comments sparked a huge on-air battle between two panelists on “The View” as the uber-conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck and the uber-liberal Joy Behar squared off against each other on the subject of free speech.

And, of course, everybody on the Internet has an opinion about what was said. But, it's how those opinions are expressed that is the issue, not the opinions themselves. Because much like the tightrope scenario that I outlined, some people use their platform of free speech to launch a few personal attacks to tear apart other people's opinions rather than strengthening their own argument. I mean, let's say that Poster A takes Kirk's argument and uses it to call him every vile name in the universe. Poster B who is opposed to such language might respond to Poster A stating that the message that Poster A is worded too strongly, and to cool it. Poster A responds to Poster B with even more venom, and suddenly Posters C and D who are on the same side as Poster A tag-teams Poster B. Then Poster E posts a generic post wondering why nobody can get along, and suddenly, Poster E is the enemy. Before long, everyone is so busy fighting and one-upping each other that they have completely forgotten what the original argument was about.

Doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, does it?

I guess the point that I'm trying to make is that when it comes to free speech, I am definitely not a huge advocate of people who try to hide behind the argument of free speech as an excuse to act like a complete and total jerk towards others. Just because one has the right to SAY whatever they want doesn't necessarily mean that people SHOULD say whatever they want. In some cases, people really should be minding their P's and Q's a lot more than perhaps they have been. Because while there is a slim chance that people might not agree with your thoughts and beliefs, there's an even bigger chance that people won't like it if you're a complete and total jerk when it comes to defending those beliefs.  While some people might do things that you might consider to be arrogant and jerky...I just don't think that we should act the same way when defending our own opinions.  You've heard the saying two wrongs don't make a right?  It's a saying that I try to live by most of the time.  It's admittedly hard to do depending on the person and the day, but I do my best, as most seem to do.  Because as much as we all believe in free speech, sometimes free speech can be quite costly.

The jury is still out on whether or not Kirk Cameron's thoughts will have any effect on him. But in the case of Rush Limbaugh, I think he's starting to understand that even something as simple as free speech can have dire consequences if it happens to be abused or taken for granted.

Just some food for thought this Thursday morning.

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