Free, Free, Oh So Free

“Freedom of speech” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the US. What limits does it come up against?

I’m not talking about free speech in terms of the first amendment alone. I’m also interested in what free speech means as a norm in various institutions and in civil society. And I’m not focusing on speech of low value (insults, childish name-calling, slurs); my concern is about the ability to hold a discussion on controversial topics, express a dissenting opinion, and ask an uncomfortable question, especially in forums that are meant for such conversations, such as a townhall meeting or a classroom.

This post is prompted by a book I’ve just read, The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, who took a six-month journey around the US, spoke to a variety of people, and reported his findings in what reads like a series of blog posts from the road.

There are observations he could have researched more or followed up on more deeply (though part of his approach was to let the various Americans he met explain things to him). I appreciated that he wasn’t trying to make anyone look stupid or ridiculous. He didn’t ask questions that were worded in a confusing way to trip people up. Usually he listened to an opinion and asked, “Why?” (What’s the basis for your belief? Why do you feel the way you do?). Or he pointed out the elephant in the room and observed people saying, “What elephant? No, that’s a housefly… maybe a swarm of houseflies… but not an elephant.”

Here are a few things that come up in the book, again and again:

  • People often don’t want to openly state their opinions. Sometimes they hint at things, or they insist on going off the record, or they wait until they get a better sense of who Tenenbom is before completely reversing what they said two seconds ago. There’s a pervasive fear of saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the wrong person.
  • People sometimes just can’t explain what they mean. They have a strong opinion, but when pressed on it, they admit they know little about the topic. Their opinion is often acquired from their social circles, whether it’s a liberal college campus or a small town where residents proudly call themselves rednecks (or country girls, if they’re women). It’s the acceptable thing to think in a given community, so they think the same way. End of story.
  • Politicians, theater directors, etc. are also scared to say anything that will disturb their donors. Or that may disturb their donors (sometimes they aren’t sure, so they play it safe).
  • Public relations speech is the speech most freely used. As long as you stay in the flatlands of PR, where the sky is always bright blue, the grass is always green, and everyone is always smiling, you can speak as freely as you like.

The phrase, “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave,” echoes throughout the book.

This is a recent book, by the way. Tenenbom made his journey during the primary season of the 2016 presidential election. He observes resentments, ignorance, the tendency to talk out of both sides of the mouth, a lack of meaningful conversation, the segregation pervasive in American society across different dimensions (racial and ethnic, socioeconomic class, political). Is his book a complete picture of the US? No. And some of the people he meets are more self-aware and thoughtful than others. But much of what he uncovers is painful or ridiculous; sometimes both.

One of the problems he encounters on his trip is the package deal way of thinking. If you have a certain identity, then the appropriate thoughts come in a package. For instance, “If I’m politically progressive, I must believe XYZ, because progressives believe XYZ.” “Explain why you believe Z.” “Well…” If you take your thoughts as a package deal, you don’t need to think about any of them. If you begin to have misgivings about any opinion in the package, you get fearful. The risk of social ostracism (and sometimes job loss or a trashed reputation, depending on the circumstances) menaces you. You have to stay within bounds.

Some of the best moments in the book come when Tenenbom focuses on things that most other journalists wouldn’t focus on – perhaps because they’re afraid of stepping out of bounds in some way, or they know that editors or producers will kill the story. For example, when he’s in Chicago, he travels to some of the neighborhoods that Obama represented early in his political career. How were the residents affected by Obama’s success?

In spite of being warned away from these neighborhoods by city bus drivers and cops, Tenenbom walks around for hours anyway talking to people, witnessing a devastating degree of poverty, and hearing from residents about the regular violence. He doesn’t report this with any satisfaction or smug “gotcha.” His motive isn’t to simply attack Obama, though he’s irritated with Obama’s hypocrisies. He speaks to everyone as one person to another person and doesn’t try to undermine the humanity of the people who live in these neighborhoods. His visit raises questions – why are the residents here left behind? Do the people on the outside who say they care really care? After reading about his visit, you can ask what would need to change for things to get better, assuming you really believe in hope and change; many of the residents have no hope of the neighborhood improving, and Obama’s fortunes are distant from theirs.

People may fixate on Big Global Issues they know little about, and ignore social ruin five miles from their home. Sometimes, observations of social ruin get weaponized in a bigoted way, with no genuine concern about human suffering. Other times, people are afraid of looking racist or questioning certain public policies or questioning their view of themselves and other people they respect. It’s easier to ignore an issue or address it with a public relations level of superficiality before breezing on to something else.

A lot of Tenenbom’s observations create friction with various narratives, and people who would automatically praise him for making some observations would automatically blast him for others when he’s upsetting their accepted opinions. If they’re asked to explain why they’re blasting him or praising him, it might be tricky for them to reply. But if one message comes from this book, it’s the importance of asking, “Why?” (Why do you hold this opinion? Why is this problem generally ignored? Why are some people seemingly above criticism?)

“Why” is a starting point at least, though it may lead to strange or painful places, with no guarantee that anyone will want to stop and say, “Why indeed? Let’s talk.”

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