The Power of Words

When in law school I was introduced to the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, staunch defender of the First Amendment. He never wrote a free speech decision I didn’t like.

From my perspective, even symbolic speech, armbands worn by protesting high school students, flag burning, etc. however offensive, should be protected. Expose all that is spoken or written or symbolized to the light of day and encourage conversation in the “free market place of ideas.” Of course, I make exceptions for speech or symbols that create a clear and present danger (i.e. shouting “fire” in the theater), and allow for protection of youngsters from that deemed too frightening or perverse, but little else.

So, that is my public stance about state censorship, even of words with the power to cause significant anger and pain.

One might conclude that on a personal level I would be equally accepting of speech I might abhor. Not so. However gently, I protect myself from words that have the power to make me inwardly cringe.

Perhaps the unspoken restrictions I would happily impose are best illustrated by a conversation I had a few years ago with two colleagues discussing a particular judge’s decision about a subject now long since forgotten. One said, “he didn’t have the balls to . . .” and for two seconds I stopped breathing. I turned to the non-speaker and asked: “were you surprised when she used those words?”

His jovial answer: “of course not. I use language like that and far worse, but never in front of you.”

By now we were all consumed with laughter, but mine was a bit uneasy.

Yes, I know all the words, even suffer through their endless use in modern film, literature and overheard cell phone conversations, but they have never been part of my vocabulary, and without being asked, perceptive friends and family protect my ears. There is a disconnect between what I believe must be protected and what I require on a personal level. My emotional response belies my intellectual outlook. Will I be perceived as protesting too much by insisting that I am not a prude? I am not. I was urged to view the audacity of George Carlin’s seven unspeakable words routine on U-Tube and found it hilarious. So why this inconsistency?

Swear words that don’t reference an almighty being typically allude to sexual or bodily functions. For generations younger than mine, repeated use of these words has apparently robbed them of all shock value and probably of any real meaning. Just a way to let off steam.

But for me, each “forbidden” word is more than an expletive. When spoken in my presence, my privacy boundary is crossed. Unwanted, uninvited crude images are evoked. In some instances the beautiful is made ugly. Is this why for me, but not for most others, they carry the negative impact they do? Perhaps so. Will my new insight bring about a shift, a relaxation? Actually after viewing George Carlin’s hilarious seven words shtick, I’ve loosened up a bit. But will those words ever fall easily from my lips?

Not likely.

But now I am faced with a new challenge.

Earlier this month in Garland, Texas, a contest was held to glorify the most offensive cartoon submission depicting the Prophet Muhammad. I’ve never found cartoons that satirize politicians in any way offensive, but now my belief in free speech pales somewhat in the face of this bigotry and hatred. I find deliberately inflicting misery on devout peace loving Muslims in the name of freedom of expression is abhorrent. And adding to my confusion is the memory some years ago of supporting the right of neo-Nazis to march with their symbols in Skokie, Illinois.

No doubt in time I will come down on the side of free expression, but not without a long thoughtful pause.