The Selective Censorship of Speech


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October 24, 2007

Since this country's inception a variety of our rulers have, from time to time, impinged Americans' freedoms of expression.

For example, John Adams' Sedition Act outlawed critical writing and speech against the U.S.; a 1907 Supreme Court decision favored nationalism over property rights and free expression; in 2001, a reporter was interrogated by the Secret Service for writing an editorial asking Jesus Christ to smite George W. Bush; and in 2006 a man was jailed for assault after telling Dick Cheney U.S. policy in Iraq was reprehensible.

While there have been numerous governmental freedom faux pas, the truth is we are blind to the true stewards of censorship 'the American public.

Granted, our public servants make much better boogeymen, but it is our own cowardice that facilitates the further erosion of freedom. Every time we say, 'There ought to be a law,' apologize for expressing ourselves or use our right of expression to stifle someone else's views, we are guilty.

Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe somewhere along the line a great many people simply decided they have the right not to be offended. They took donations, formed groups and greased the palms of those who passed legislation on so-called hate speech and decency legislation when all these citizen tyrants needed to do was ignore the insulting material, thereby removing its power.

First they changed 'manhole cover' to 'person-hole cover,' and 'chairman' to 'Chairperson.'

The next thing you know, retarded people are no longer retarded, they're mentally challenged. And while I'm still white, blacks are now African American--regardless of whether they were born in Idaho or Sudan. And while I was born in America, I am not a native American, and I'm still not sure whether to refer to Indians'feathers, not dots'as Indians or Native Americans.

In his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy discusses the controversy over who can and cannot employ the so-called N-word. The idea that there exists a race-specific license on what words one can and cannot use is nearly as frightening as it is ridiculous. And, as asinine, juvenile and repulsive as I find people who dislike others based on race, religion or sexual preference, they have every right to engage in free speech, even the hateful kind.

As with every other infringement on liberty, those oppressors claim to stifle us for our own safety and mental health. Of course, the result from subjective enforcement is an evermore skewed sense of who can say what and when.

Even more contradictory is the disparity between epithets the PC police will and won't allow. While I can get away with saying 'Redneck, whitey, cracker, Canuck, pollock, flapdragon, frog, limey, Mohawk and mongrel,' no one would stand for me calling an Irishman a 'mic' or an Italian a 'wop.'

And before you break out the 'Death to Gohs' stationary, I'm not dropping slurs just for the hell of it. My job consists of words, language and the nuances therein. And few things terrify me more than being told I am barred from using certain aspects of the language simply because I may offend someone.

If I cannot write or say one word today, then what won't I be able to write or say tomorrow?

I'm not calling for people to start dropping F-bombs or N-words willy-nilly in newspapers, on TV or radio, and I'm certainly not begging Buddha to bugger Bush, but when a radio shock-jock loses his job for saying, 'Nappy-headed hoes,' or anti-freedom zealots 'round the country scream for the head of the editor of a college rag who used "Fuck" in a headline, political correctness has gone too far.

I doubt not for a second that Imus' poor word choice hurt some feelings, but if he would have made nasty comments about fat people, white people, Canadian people or gays, he would today remain unscathed'Now where is the decency in that?

Like Spencer Tracy's character Henry Drummond in 'Inherit the Wind' said, 'I don't swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands.'

Following is a three-step emergency plan for those of you easily offended by free speech:

1. Stock up on tissue paper ' Warning: Excessive weeping may require something more absorbent such as a beach towel or bedspread.

2. Do not turn off the radio nor close the offending book or newspaper ' the side effects of doing so include personal responsibility and diminished indignation.

3. Punch yourself in the stomach, because you are a whiny little dork and I don't have time to do it for you ' Repeat as necessary.

Even with all the expletives, slang and jive on the planet, there is nothing more damaging to the fruition of ". . . liberty and justice for all" than the censorship of free expression.

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Benjamin Gohs's picture
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Benjamin J. Gohs is a staff writer for the Charlevoix Courier newspaper and author of the award-winning column "The Crying Towel."