Personally speaking, I take a lot of issue with the way that the American military is run – and there are a lot of problems with it. This “stand behind our troops or feel free to stand in front of them”, “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that people have that creates no room for question or discussion. The fact that sexual assault is a rampant problem in the military that people are, quite frankly, not doing enough to address. The fact that military recruiters target and take advantage of uneducated and poor children. Yet, whenever I would mention these concerns, and there was someone nearby who wanted to convince me to overlook these problems and regard the American military as an overwhelmingly positive force, the same comment would frequently be made: “these are men and women who are fighting for your rights. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t even be able to say that you disagree with them. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have the freedom of speech.” And I won’t deny that; for years, the American military has been filled with men and women who fought, suffered, and died so that their fellows would be allowed to say things that would get you killed or imprisoned in some other countries.
Freedom of speech is a right that gets discussed frequently, and, it seems, especially lately. Growing up, I always took it for granted that freedom of speech was always a good thing.
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
Freedom of speech has been used to defend what are, in my mind, some pretty atrocious things. A homophobic baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but he claims that he is only practicing his freedom of speech. White supremacists protest publicly against removing a statue of a Confederate soldier, but they are allowed to be there because that is their freedom of speech. In both of these cases, a message is very clearly being sent to a specific group of people: you are not respected and you do not belong here, your existence will not be tolerated. And this message is awful, and I apologize to everyone who has had to endure it.
And when these instances arise, there are people who say things like, “I don’t believe in freedom of speech if this is what freedom of speech is”, and I understand that. It hurts my heart to think that there are people out there who have to endure messages like these daily. So sometimes, it’s easier to think that we could just shut these people up and be done with it.
But we can’t.
Because we have a flip-side to all of this too. Freedom of speech is not only being put under question when it comes to hate speech lately, but American president Donald Trump has sort of put all freedom of speech into question.
The first time that I became aware of this was when he began his attacks against the media, referring to any news station that spoke poorly of him as “fake news”. Trump has even issued a press ban, refusing to allow certain organizations from attending press briefings at the white house.
But the thing that everyone is talking about now, the issue on every tongue, is the fact that Trump took to Twitter and actively supported the American people punishing NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem.
With this single act, Trump has issued a very clear message: freedom of speech will not be tolerated, so long as it is something he disagrees with.
And yes, Trump has supported free speech in the past, such as when he defended Jack Phillips, the aforementioned homophobic baker, claiming that he had every right to refuse the same-sex couple who came to him for a wedding cake. Which makes it very interesting that this is where he chooses to draw the line when it comes to free speech.
Because in this particular instance, the NFL players in question are actually supporting something that I agree with. While the act of kneeling has since become synonymous with rebelling against Trump’s stance on freedom of speech, this is not where the act began. Initially, kneeling during the national anthem was started with Colin Kaepernick, who explained his reasoning by saying that he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” This is where the issues stems from: a very real, very constant problem in American culture. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and by kneeling, Kaepernick hoped to draw attention to it.
And yet, by kneeling, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who later joined in unintentionally began a conversation around free speech, for they have not only been told that the workplace is not a place for freedom of speech (unless they’re a homophobic baker, for some reason), but they have had their own president attempt to punish them for doing so.
And, yes, I am aware that the reason why so many people are offended at NFL players kneeling for the national anthem is because, in their opinion, the flag and the national anthem deserve more respect than that. And I could talk all day about how odd it is that these people seem to be more offended by a black man kneeling during the national anthem than a black man getting shot in the street by the police, but I don’t know if I’d get anywhere with that argument, and the point is, these men have a concern that needs to be addressed. And shutting them up won’t get rid of that concern. Shutting them up won’t save black lives, and it most certainly will not increase their love or respect for the country that made them do it.
And that’s why freedom of speech is so important, in every way that it exists: because when someone says something, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, it still means something. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away; addressing it will. And maybe addressing it makes us uncomfortable, but at least it makes us talk and develop and grow and change.
And, end of day, who gets to decide who is worthy to speak and who isn’t? I mean, Donald Trump is trying to assume the role of decider, but all this has done for him is create a divided country, neither side of which truly feels like their voice is being heard.
My whole life, I have always heard freedom of speech revered as this amazing force that needed to be respect. I have been told that it is a right that people have fought and died for, that is a rare privilege to be enjoyed by everyone who has access to it. And I still believe all this. I believe that, if you have a problem, speak it, because there’s no other way to address it. And maybe this does mean that, if we have freedom of speech, then everyone has freedom of speech – even those who are hateful and who we disagree with down to our very core, and maybe this does mean that people get emotionally hurt along the way. Life isn’t perfect, and even a system like this will have its casualties.
But just because someone says something rude and hateful and awful, that doesn’t mean that I have to tolerate it. That is me practicing my freedom of speech.