“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Free speech is dangerous: communicating what you really think is risky business. Although we are given the legal right to speak freely, social condemnation often renders this “right” to be in name only. We have the right to say what we think, but in today’s hypersensitive, social-media atmosphere filled with internet trolls, it’s just not worth saying anything at all. At least publicly.
American penchant for throwing stones at people who say things we disagree with has roots in our country’s beginnings. Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury), James Madison (future President), and John Jay (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) wrote the Federalist Papers in an attempt to persuade citizens to remake the American government from a loosely connected confederation of states to the constitutional government we live under today. However, these papers were originally published anonymously in a time before our nation had a constitution, much less a Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech.
Fast forward to 2016, the age of information, where every “free speech” opinion is expressed in real time on Twitter and other social media platforms. Frequently I wish to express an opinion, and my fingers itch to write a blog or post a few words. But I hold my tongue and bind my voice inside my head. There are currently 79 “draft” pieces on my blog that I have not felt free to post.
I see what happens to people who do tweet or post reasoned opinion pieces, and I want no part of that. I don’t wish to be labeled a “libtard,” a “Hillarybot,” a “Trumpet” a “caveman” or some other derogatory term that assumes I am an idiot, denigrates my opinion, questions my morality or otherwise holds me in contempt. Why should people hate me just for having an opinion that runs contrary to theirs? And it is hate. There is no other word for the vitriol that drips like acid from some of the posts I see on Twitter and FaceBook.
Free speech is no longer free when its consequences are barbed, nasty, and destined to be the next derogatory hashtag. We should not call one another names. I thought I left that behind years ago, in grade school. When I was a first grade teacher, I sent students to Time Out when they engaged in name-calling. Nowadays, a look at what’s trending on Twitter shows a society that values, retweets, and shares posts filled with vitriolic profanity and discussions of genitals and sexual degradation over well-reasoned, thoughtful discourse.
In fact, we have major political figures on both sides of the aisle making name-calling vogue again. It appears that the impersonality and immediacy of social media has wreaked havoc on lessons we learned as pre-schoolers.
And that’s a shame, because it de facto robs us of that which our constitution guarantees us: freedom of speech. Although Congress may not pass a law prohibiting our speech, changing societal norms sure will.