Snapshots from Green Victoria (tedwords) wrote,
Snapshots from Green Victoria

Three Wise Men: On Free Speech

Well, another New Year's come and gone. And, way too quickly. I think the week between Christmas and New Year's is my favorite one of the year, because I basically revert back to living like a teen-ager. Sitting on the couch, playing video games. Watching movies, listening to music. Staying up until three in the morning, sleeping until ten in the morning. It's the life I was meant to live, if that dumb having to make a living thing hadn't walked into my life.

New Year's eve, we invited everyone over to our place for a housewarming-slash-ring-in-the-New-Year party. It was the first time we've really let anyone in to see the place, mostly because we finally got around to picking the place up so it would look presentable.

The photo above is from the party. It was taken in our living room. Corb and I climbed up to the loft to take it. Everyone's showing off their skanky swap gifts--it's an annual tradition for New Years.  Ms. LeShock, you'll notice the lava lamp, if you look hard enough!

Pay no attention to the lady wearing a size EE bra over her head as a doily. That's Corb's sister-in-law, proudly displaying the skanky swap item she won that night...

Oh, and throughout the week, I read. Of course. For some reason, this season, I've found myself obsessed with three wise men, each one possessing more wit in their little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies: Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and Jack Benny.

These three gents have kept me entertained for hours, making me smile, making me laugh out loud, and more often than not, making me think. So much so, that I think I'll quote them a bit, all week long.

I think Mark Twain has been my favorite, although it's really hard to choose a favorite among such an august group. For my birthday, I received a copy of "Who Is Mark Twain?" a collection of never-before-published personal papers. I've always been a huge fan of Twain's unpublished material ever since I found a copy of "Letters from the Earth" at a used book store about twenty years ago. I lost the copy a while back, but it turned up during the move, and I'm now proudly displaying it in the library.

"Who Is Mark Twain" is just as entertaining, and a quick read, too: twenty or so short entries, usually around six pages in length. Twain discusses dentistry, talks to the devil, complains about government, and even disses Jane Austen ("Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.")

Most of all, Twain had the wisdom to know when it made sense to offer up his opinion and when to keep his tremendous literary voice silent. Many of these entries didn't see the light of day while he was living, for a reason.

I think my favorite story is called "The Privilege of the Grave," where he says:

"Its occupant has but one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not without this privilege--strictly speaking--but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact...murder is sometimes punished, free speech always--when committed."

As anyone who does any sort of journaling knows--or as anyone who has spent even a few fruitless hours wrestling with someone on any sort of social media (including Facebook), even now, unfettered free speech can have costly consequences. Although in the heat of passion it may be tempting to say whatever the hell's on your mind, in practice, this exercise of free speech can easily become more hellish than it's worth. It can lose you friends--or hang over your head-- for years to come.

Which is why most of us tend to become somewhat safe in what we set down, after a while. I know that I've become much more careful about what I say before I hit the send button, through the years.

Even those who live to shock know which borders not to cross.

On the political end of things, no matter what end of the spectrum you're on, it's my experience that people tend to stay on that side to the bitter end, and can never admit that the "other guys" make any sense about anything. Conservatives may harbor certain liberal thoughts, but dare not fess up to them, and vica versa. Or, if that do, it's in a dismissive tone, with a soft core wrapped around a harsh exterior, to cover up the sin of straying from whatever talking points you've signed up for.

The other day, I read the best quote from Tom Baker on this subject, which I thought was so wise: ""When the Conservatives were in (power), I cannot tell you how much I hated them. But I realise how shallow I am, because I now hate the Labour Party as much." Now THERE'S a refreshing perspective.

I sometimes enjoy sparring with folks of other ideological persuasions...rattling their cages, so to speak. But what I've found, more often than not, is that the tone tends to get nasty, nobody backs down, and you end up creating a gulf that's impossible to cross. An exercise of free speech, in some ways, except that it's more often simply an exercise in demagoguery, oftfering empty slogans and little in the way of true substance.

About a year ago, I wrote a story about Sarah Palin that one of my friends (at the time) took great offense to. His tone quickly became nasty and personal...and worse of all, he got the facts of my personal life wrong. I mean, anything but that!

What I found is that the mutual spray of vitriol we were lobbing at each other grew tiresome quickly...and was having the potential to ruin a perfectly good week-end. So, I quickly de-friended the guy and lay low for about a week. Voila, problem solved.

Wars can be raged around sexual politics, too. Another time, many years ago, when Josie and I were first breaking apart, I posted the unfortunate (although I thought at the time, funny) comment that maybe I'd "come out through the gay tube and end up straight." Of course, this didn't happen, but it prompted an LJ friend I had at the time, a gay man who had been involved with a married guy, to verbally crucify me. He called me every posible name in the book, and of course projected a lot of his feelings about this other guy onto me. Although he later apologized, our friendship was toast, and we soon parted ways.

This isn't to imply that I haven't guilty of the same thing. In years past, there wasn't a day that would go by where I wouldn't say or do the wrong thing, impulsively. With age comes wisdom, I guess. Now I make it a point to only say or do the wrongs things every OTHER day.

What I learned from these examples, I think, is that while it's good to have courage in your convictions, it's a wise person that has the courage to know when it makes sense to act upon those convictions, for all the world to see. Sometimes you come across as more convict than courageous. Sometimes a lighter touch is needed to make the point more forcefully. Sometimes it's better to say nothing at all.

But what if you just have to say something, or you'll go insane? Twain has an answer to this one, too. "For free speech is a desirable thing...sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can't print the result...I will leave it behind, and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family."

How I wish that in this day and age, more of us exercised this wisdom that Twain espoused, over 100 years ago.
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