Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Rush Limbaugh and the Freedom of Speech

Societies achieve their own acceptable levels of harmony when their citizens hold each other accountable to certain, generally accepted behavioral norms and standard practices (e.g., business practices, the rule of law, etc.). It’s not always easy to define those norms and practices, which is why we occasionally see protests in the streets, such as during the movements for women’s suffrage, organized labor, and civil rights, and even now with the Occupy movement.

Clearly, there are ranges of acceptable behavior; i.e., tolerance levels, and they vary from country to country. For example, the Japanese have a well known expression that captures the importance they place on conformity and homogeneity: “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” In contrast, the people of the U.S. are fairly tolerant, and accept wide ranges of behavior before they express outrage and attempt to corral those who step out of line. For example, we can accept having a Nazi party within our borders, but when that party attempted to march on the large Jewish population of Skokie, Illinois, there was outrage in every corner of the country. The Nazi’s freedom of speech equated to intimidation of another group, and most people felt that was intolerable.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that someone can say whatever they want and not be held accountable. Rush crossed over the line. Through his deliberate choice of inflammatory words, he chose to step outside of the range of acceptable behavior, and it is fair and right that he be brought back into line, especially given the magnitude of his influence, which is a courtesy of his publicly-granted access to the air waves. Even worse, though, he proposed to infringe on the hard-won rights of others, and we are now seeing a very healthy reaction by millions of vigilant people in this country who want those rights to be unassailable.

We’ve all heard the saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” When someone steps out of line, we can’t just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, it’s his right to say that.” It may be his right, but it’s also our right, and even our obligation, to protect the rights and values that are important to us and to counter venom with truth.