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Posted by on Sep 19, 2006 in At TMV | 14 comments

Guest Voice: Freedom, Rights And Responsibilities

The Moderate Voice occasionally runs Guest Voice posts by readers who don’t have a weblog or have one and have something special to say here. Guest Voice posts do not necessarily reflect the opinion of TMV or its co-bloggers — but they do add to our free-wheeling debate. This is by reader C. Stanley.

Freedom, rights and responsibilities

By C. Stanley

Sunday’s edition of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution contained a rather interesting article reflecting on the centennial anniversary of some particularly nasty racial riots in Atlanta. Apparently most historians agree that the local media of the day had fanned the flames and helped to incite episodes of racial violence. In the 1960s, as racial tensions were again magnified, the editorial staff of the city’s largest newspaper looked back on the media’s role in those previous incidents in order to learn how they might play a less destructive role during their time of unrest.

Self-moderation, self-censorship, or self-restriction, can be laudable in such situations. We might even go so far as to say that one responsibility inherent in our right to free expression is to modulate speech toward sensitivities of the audience, in order to avoid making potentially incendiary statements. Unfortunately that line of reasoning leads to a serious question: where does one draw the line in asking a speaker or writer to censor himself ?

Are we to ask, not only that he avoid making incendiary statements, but that he also should avoid making statements that could be misconstrued as incendiary? Is it really the responsibility of the speaker/writer to parse words according to how his words might be…misinterpreted?

Is there not also a responsibility among listeners and readers, to hear and understand what is actually stated rather than to assume that a broader or different meaning was implied? There is, after all, a difference between implication and inference. It is a mistake to infer meaning that is not consistent with the actual intent of the writer or speaker. The responsibility for that mistake falls on the recipient of the message, not on its bearer.

Our precious freedom of speech carries with it many responsibilities, indeed.

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  • Elrod

    Well said, even if I may disagree with you on the Pope’s Islam comments. Ultimately, people should be allowed to say what they want. The responsibility for reacting appropriate is encumbent upon the listener.

  • Wait a minute. I could be missing your point here. Admittedly I was out of town and missed the sunday paper so if I am wrong I will go out an seek the article that you mention.

    The fact is that the local press in 1906 went so far as to print unconfirmed reports of black males assaulting. It was not about printing incindiery opinion. It was about printing absolute falsehoods as actual reporting. Reporting that led to tragic consequences.

    It was the worse thing a reporter, editor or a newspaper could do.

    I can’t find the article you mention on line but I will keep searching. I hope I am wrong or misintrepreting what you wrote.

    The fact is 1906 and the role of the local press is a black eye on my city that really is only coming to light.

  • Is this the article?

  • C Stanley

    Yes, that’s it…thanks for finding the link because I was unable to locate it online.

    I wasn’t stating one way or another what the role of the press was in those incidents. I only used it as an example of the press practicing self-examination. I would come to the same conclusion as I think you do, that it was the false charges that were being used to fan the flames, not just volatile opinions. I think they did exactly the right thing during the 60’s by looking back to evaluate the mistakes that were made. In fact, I’d say this is the key difference: since they looked back and saw that the falsehoods were the instigating factors, they were entirely correct in their judgment of the press’ culpability. If the reporting during the ’06 period had been all based on fact then they might have come to a different conclusion that the press was not at fault. One could argue, I suppose, that in ’06 they were reporting on the factual arrests of blacks, not making up the charges themselves, but still, their reporting obviously elevated the status of those claims and they should have reported on the flaws of the criminal justice system. So, in this case, self-examination showed flaws that they were willing to work to correct and that is perfectly appropriate (and commendable) IMO.

    I posed the question about where to draw the line, on that very basis. If speech is factual and not incendiary, then the responsibility for reaction lies with the listener/reader.

  • First off, congrats on the guest blog, C! 🙂

    Second, in the words of Ice T (Law and Order SVU and Gangsta Rapper, Ex-Pimp, Former Gang Member, etc.): “Yeah we have freedom of speech, but watch what you say.”

  • C Stanley

    Thanks, and I’d be interested in why you differ on the application of this principle to the Pope’s recent comments. I can think of two possible reasons: one, which I think you have already ascribed to, is that his speech should be permissible but that it wasn’t necessarily advisable. The other reason, which I think Kim Ritter touched on, would be that we shouldn’t expect Muslim audiences to have the capacity to exercise the responsibility of proper response to a message. I suppose that since they are not under our Constitution, we could say that they shouldn’t be held to that responsibility but there are many Muslim’s who seem to want to participate in free expression without assuming its necessary responsibilities. That actually touches on an undercurrent that many may not be aware of, another issue of Christian/Muslim relations that Pope Benedict has taken on: reciprocity. He has taken a harder line on this than Pope JPII and rightly so, IMO, because Muslims build mosques in Christian lands but refuse to allow Christian churches in many areas, and then of course there is dhimmi law for non-muslims, issues of conversion, apostasy, etc. Pope JPII was more conciliatory in tone to open dialogue but now the devil is in the details of how we can even have that dialogue under the current conditions, and Pope Benedict is navigating through some of these tough issues.

  • C Stanley

    C Prez,
    Thanks…and, it’s good to know that Ice T has weighed in on this issue LOL

  • Okay. I understand now. Thanks for the clarification.

    I think in straight news reporting you draw the line at being factual.Although the inflammatory nature of the editorials in 1906 were reprehensible, opinion can be fought with opinion. In fact, I would rather those with disgusting views be exposed to the light instead of being hidden away.

    Reporting incidents based on rumor and innuendo was far worse. The only way to battle falsehood is with fact.

    Self examination of 1906 is critical and I’m glad Atlanta is finally coming to grips with it.

  • Chris

    his speech should be permissible but that it wasn’t necessarily advisable

    It comes down to a matter of picking your fights. Examples include everything from invasion of North Korea to the police trying to break up organized crime (I actually had an officer in California tell me that they don’t dare arrest a Hell’s Angel for anything!). Incendiary and condemning comments toward Islam are percieved by many Moslems as inciteful. Believe it or not, I hear an AWFUL LOT of Christians react with references to violence when they are provoked – its human nature.

    So my response to those who condemn Islam as a violent religion is a bit emotional because IT PUTS US IN DANGER! Should it? Of course not. All Moslems should be reasonable and respect our opinions. But SOME don’t – SOME who feel it necessary to attack “infidels” in order to defend the integrity of thier religion. So we MUST be careful with our rhetoric when it involves issues and cultures we know very little about.

    One of the things I enjoy reading on blog sites is civil debates on topics in which a number of readers have particular expertise or knowledge, such as the recent one on statistics and the economy. But I see much more opinion than knowledge when the topic of MODERN Islam comes up – particularly how it coexists with even more ancient Arab cultures.

    What we have done in the Middle East is like shooting a grizzly bear with a .22 and I get real nervous when I see our power base reaching for that pea shooter again and again. Where the real stupidity comes in is that we are not even aware that bigger guns are available. Where the arrogance comes in is that we don’t WANT to know if a bigger gun exists. Where the immorality comes in is when we go hunting for grizzlies with .22’s instead of considering the shooting of a grizzly as an unfortunate necessity.

    But then, that’s just my opinion.

  • C,

    heheheh but you can’t discount what the man has to say, he is highly intelligent and has been through a lot coming up in the hoods of L.A. I do believe that’s true, watch what you say. Funny thing is, the 1st amendment and free speech protect us not from what we want to hear, but what we don’t want to hear, and I feel that’s important. Am I getting tangential right now? I kind of think that I am… :-/

  • C Stanley

    No, I think your right on target, C Prez. And I was only teasing about Ice T, I don’t mean to dismiss him.

  • I know that, C. 🙂 Just giving everyone else a quick background on him.

  • This made me think yet again of the nature of blogging and speech, and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. (And I promise this will get back to the Pope’s speech.)

    So, whenever you are on your own just thinking about stuff, you can think whatever. In fact usually you have no control over an idea that pops up, and you get to discard it. There are no real responsibilities that come with this other than that of self-reflection and humility.

    Now let’s say you have a blog that isn’t read usually by anyone other than your close friends and family. It is usually advisable to watch what you say a little, because you don’t want to damage relationships with those few people who do read, but that’s usually about it responsibility-wise. This is the state of my own blog. Every once in a while a Google search or a Technorati search will bring someone in, so I try to make my thoughts fine for strangers. But for the most part I can say poorly thought out things or ideas I came up with at 2 AM, because the only people reading are people who know me already.

    Now, let’s move a step up to a blog like The Moderate Voice. I think posting here brings in some added responsibilities that posting on my personal blog does not bring. Here, people do not know who I am and my words have little personal context. Moreover, they take on a little broader significance. People might get impressions of what a liberal is like from reading me. Indeed the reason that one comes to a blog like this is to participate in reasonable debate, so if I am just spouting out the first thing that crosses my mind, I am not offering reasonable debate, but only meaningless debate.

    One can see that the responsibilities increase as your words become more widespread. If I was a featured blogger at Michelle Malkin (after the lobotomy, sorry, can’t resist a dig) or Daily Kos (after I forget how to consider other opinions and only see the worst in others), I would really want to choose my words carefully, because thousands of people read them. They affect how people think. I have the right to say whatever I want (unless I am screaming fire in a crowded theater), but I have a responsibility to say only what is decently reasoned and evidenced.

    The Pope and the President are on the far extreme. Their words are taken as not the words of a man, but the policy of a nation. In some ways, it is a shame, because it means that you rarely get to hear (or should rarely get to hear) the person’s unreserved thoughts on an issue, but there is no choice. Their words have effects. Therefore, the Pope has to choose his words more carefully than I do, because I am not one of the world’s spokesmen for a religion.

    I fully agree with C. Stanley that people should take the time to really understand what someone is saying before they act, and it is their responsibility to do so, not the speakers, but at the same time, the Pope as a world leader must do everything he can so that his words cannot be misinterpreted by the lazy or politically motivated. Unfortunately, the world mostly contains people acting irresponsibly and a world leader has to do the best he or she can in that context.

  • Good post C.Stanley, congrats on the Guest Voice 😉

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