As Americans we have freedom of speech, which is a glorious thing. I’ve never been a fan of censorship, even when I find something distasteful or hateful. And I would never ask that something I find morally repugnant be banned on private property, even if it deeply offends me.
Which is why the misreading of my piece on the Confederate flag is baffling to me. Because nowhere in my piece did I suggest that the Confederate flag be banned on private property, or that the man flying it should not be legally allowed to do so. (I would like to see it removed from public property, but that’s a different story.) I think if someone wants to fly the Confederate flag, that is indeed their first amendment right. I find it detestable, but I would not take that right away.
But here’s where it works both ways: someone flying the flag does indeed have the right to fly it, but all of us who see it also have the right to voice our own opinions about it.
To use another example, you are free to walk to the center of town and shout as many racist, sexist, and homophobic words as you would like. It is reprehensible and terrible, but that’s your right.
But in response, the people who hear you can say they do not agree. And they can also make choices based on your words. They might decide they no longer want to be your friend. They might say they will never again shop at your business. And, yes, they might call you a racist, sexist, and homophobe.
And they will be well within their rights to do so.
So when someone sees someone else flying a Confederate flag, they are free to infer what they want from your speech. For many people, particularly those whose ancestors were enslaved in the antebellum South, they are going to infer that you care nothing about racial inequality. And they are free to then decide how much they want to have to do with you.
That’s because freedom of speech does not free you from the consequences of that speech.
For instance, I used my freedom of speech when I wrote my blog, saying the things I would say had I the opportunity to talk to the owner of that truck. I said that, to me, those symbols conveyed racist intent. That is not judgement. That is saying “those symbols are painful to many, and I wish you’d reconsider them”. It’s also saying that racism and hatred have for too long been allowed to flourish under the protection of that flag. And regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I have as much right to say that as he does to fly that flag.
The consequences of that speech have come in the form of emails, comments, and tweets calling me every racist, sexist, and homophobic slur I have ever heard. (Update, I have now received anti-Semitic slurs as well.) And the people saying those things have that right. I also have the right to delete them from my private blog (but not from public spaces) because I refuse to allow that speech in my digital home. Being called those names is not a negative consequence to me. In fact, the more people have to resort to slurs to prove their point, the more I know my initial impressions of that flag were correct. Because as it turns out it’s kind of hard to argue that your stance is not about hate when you are spewing hate.
What I find interesting is that with one exception, no one signed their actual name to those slurs. I think that is because people do understand that free speech does have consequences. If you post hate speech online, it’s out there for every potential employer, date, or friend to see forever. Most people take the necessary precautions and do not sign their name.
The one person who did sign his name responded to my message back. We dialogued and, while we do not agree about the flag, he apologized. For others who sent slurs without their names, but with their emails, I have emailed back. I’ve invited each one to lunch so we can talk face-to-face. Sadly, none has yet taken me up on my offer. I wish they would. I’d like to hear why they said what they said.
Which leads me to this: If you really believe in freedom of speech, and if you really truly believe in what you are saying, why are you not willing to sign your real name? It always interests me that the comments that are most concerned about free speech come from people who lack the courage of their convictions and hide behind their keyboards. It seems pretty ironic to me.
So, I’ll keep writing. Using my real name. And I’ll keep talking about the things in this world that cause pain. And I’ll keep telling the truth I know, the one that is grounded in my faith. You, of course, are free to disagree. But don’t argue your first amendment rights are being denied. Because they aren’t. You are just being asked to consider the consequences of your words and actions. You can choose to do nothing in response, but the choice is always yours. The response to your actions, however, belongs to everyone.