It seems like a lot of people in the news are losing their jobs lately for saying things that someone else — the public, an employer, etc. — deems unacceptable. There has, of course, also been an outcry about the firings, namely that they amount to little more than a witch hunt and that they should be considered a dramatic example of the curtailing of free speech.
At what point did we begin to equate our freedom of speech with the idea that we can say anything we like and that there will not be any consequences?
We have the right to say virtually anything we like in this country; we will almost never get hauled off to prison for an offensive turn of phrase. But we should understand that we might face consequences from our family, our friends, our employers, or the public at large if they strongly disagree or take offense at what we say.
This isn’t exactly a shocking relevation though, from the coverage of the Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Laura Schlessinger, and Juan Williams affairs, it would seem that some people are in need of a reminder.
Richard Rorty wrote extensively about the split between our public and private lives, and I think some of his most interesting philosophical work is on this topic. In particular, when I read Juan Williams’ comments about fearing Muslims on airplanes, I thought of this quote from a piece that Rorty published in the Virginia Law Review in 1992:
A lot of things that some of the powerful believe in their hearts – e.g., that men have the right to beat up on women whenever they need to bolster their own self-confidence – are things they can no longer say in public, and can barely admit to themselves. We have a long way to go in this direction, obviously, but I see no better political rhetoric available than the kind that pretends “we” have a virtue even when we do not have it yet. That sort of pretense and rhetoric is just how new and better “we’s” get constructed. For what people cannot say in public becomes, eventually, what they cannot say even in private, and then, still later, what they cannot even believe in their hearts (725-726).
To be perfectly frank, in our society you cannot say whatever you want without consequences because we want some of the things that you believe to change. We think, for example, that toleration is a cardinal virtue for people like us and we think that those of us who are less tolerant of others should become more tolerant. And those things — your personal beliefs and your ability to express them publicly without consequence — are very much related to one another.