These days, I often think about—and sometimes pontificate about—free speech. I probably do the latter too often, too loudly, and too long, but it’s because the older I get, the more I see how its value has deteriorated in many parts of western society. In a time when politicians and online social media sites think it’s important to control speech, we have to revisit a discussion about the necessity to protect free speech—a freedom that is foundational and essential to any free society.
I say “the older I get” because I have changed over the years, slowly but surely. As a child I was timid. In elementary school I’d be sick at the thought of having to read aloud. As a teenager, I was so quiet that cousins who visited from outside the province thought I might be the maid, not a family member, since I kept myself busy serving the visitors. At university I avoided any course that would require that I give oral presentations.
Thankfully, my years as a school teacher loosened my tongue and fed my courage. Still, even after writing books that I hoped were challenging, and then accepting speaking invitations, I was not comfortable engaging in conversations that were argumentative or confrontational, except with close friends or family.
In 2010, however, I went to see Ann Coulter at the campus of UWO. It took me a while to process what I heard and saw there, and what followed later at the University of Ottawa: In Canada, freedom of speech was being challenged, and that challenge was supported by many of my fellow Canadians.
At the time, I heard Christian friends call Ann Coulter over-the-top and abrasive. They considered that as a self-identified Christian she should present her ideas with more Christian love and decorum. I agreed.
On that Monday night, during the Q&A, a young Muslim woman challenged Coulter about something she had written, asking if Coulter wanted to convert her to Christianity and, also, what mode of transportation should she use since she doesn’t have a flying carpet—a reference to the 911 backlash. My heart went out to her—to the Muslim girl, that is. Her voice shook at one point, with nervousness or, more likely, anger. Or both, and both understandable.
I watched Coulter’s face. It appeared to me that her heart went out to her too.
But Coulter’s face changed when, after several attempts to answer the first and supposedly serious question, she was being shouted down by chants of “Answer the question! Answer the question!” Then, instead of pleading, as I would have, for them to let her answer the girl, Coulter said something like, “The question? What transportation? Oh, I don’t know…a camel?”
I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for the girl, for Coulter, for me.
For me? Yes. Ridiculous, perhaps, but I wanted Coulter to do what I’d do. Try to reason with them, perhaps, or just wait them out. I was embarrassed when she didn’t. I felt it somehow reflected on me.
Now I’m embarrassed that I would have been foolish enough to attempt to reason with people who came to the event hoping Coulter would give them an opportunity to act out. They were not there to hear her message; they were there to disrupt her message.
Since then, however, I’ve concluded that rude Ann Coulter was, herself, the message.
Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” and although he may not agree with my using his quote in this case, I think Ann Coulter’s message is not merely in what she says. While I don’t always agree with what she says or how she says it, I believe the real message is the fact that she says it and does so in a way that irritates not only the left, but also the right. She is a message that needs to be repeated.
She is this lesson: It’s okay to say what you believe, even if people don’t like what you believe. It’s okay that people get mad at you. But it’s not okay to be afraid to speak, and it’s not okay to give up your right to free speech without a fight.
A verbal fight, that is. Coulter believes in freedom of speech and models it with a vengeance. Apparently, these ten years later, so do some others—but not all.
Back then, I thought it didn’t take nearly as much courage to be Bill Maher—an outspoken, abrasive leftist—as it did to be Ann Coulter. I still think so, to be honest, but in recent years I have developed a new appreciation for anyone who will take an honest, clear, unapologetic stand, and will support the right of their opposition to do the same.
I’m definitely not suggesting we should be rude, belittling, or abrasive. I’m saying we should honour and protect free speech wherever we find it. Even though I find some speech hateful and incendiary, and I do talk back to it when I hear it on television, I wouldn’t think of shouting it down in public. Not because I’m a Christian who doesn’t want to offend—even though I am a Christian who doesn’t want to offend—but because there is no question in my mind that I don’t want to live in a country where someone would be banned from speaking, or even kept from speaking by a noisy mob.
Back when Ann Coulter and Bill Maher were my focus, I would have said that I didn’t think they wanted that kind of society either. Now I think that we have deteriorated to the point that some on both “sides” would prefer it. I am concerned that even some Canadians would like to live in a country that keeps people from speaking out for what they believe in. I fear they just don’t get the concept of true freedom of speech, that it has to mean freedom-for-all-speech, like it or not.
It’s for all, or it simply is not free speech.
McLuhan also said, “Everyone experiences more than he understands, yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”
I believe that is so, but I can’t help but think that a little understanding of what is absolutely necessary for freedom and truth to survive would result in better, more courageous, and more liberating behaviour from—and toward—us all.
In this, as in arguably every situation we encounter in life, I believe that Christians—perhaps everyone—can learn from Jesus. If we follow him on his travels and listen to his encounters with those who were offended by his words, we will notice that his responses were often very quiet, measured, and kind—and sometimes they offended even more. But always, they were truth.
Speaking the truth in love—even the truth of what we believe, whether relational, biblical, political, or societal—is a mandate we all carry. And we should respect it.
“These are the things you shall do; Speak every man truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates,” (Zechariah 8:16).
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye bought to answer every man,” (Colossians 4:6).
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer,” (Psalm 19:13-14).