What’s So Free About This Speech?

This is number two of the four-part American Culture Series, in which I point out something in American culture that mystifies me, then apply it to my life (and yours) as a writer/publisher. For the first thread in the series, see What’s So Bad About Generalizations.

I had already planned to write this particular blog this morning, and then it became even more timely on my way home. You see, I heard a very short blurb on the radio about Emma Thompson (my fave!), and this blurb is precisely something which I find both peculiar and alarming about modern American culture (and getting more and more prevalent and alarming all the time). Let’s be myopic for a moment and talk just about Emma, shall we? Dear Emma said in a recent interview, and I quote, “You can’t be a great mum and keep working all the time.” Suddenly, this is world news. And Thompson is in trouble. Hmm… Can you see what I find bizarre? Because it’s not really a choice of news topics, it’s deeper than that.

I believe very strongly in free speech. So strongly, in fact, that I let other people say things I don’t believe and that I might find repulsive or be offended by. I have no desire, after they say something contrary to me or my beliefs, for revenge or for brutal, public castration. In fact, I want very badly to protect their right to say those things. (I even want, at times, to make it an event for open discussion and for exploration of ideas. Sometimes, I sigh and roll my eyes.) Alas, public opinion has become the judge and jury for people with power. From chefs to actors, from sports team owners to sports stars, one by one the most recent buzz is taken as occasion to villify and massacre (usually through their career) those who share an opinion outside current fads and to (less often) glorify those who share opinions within the media trends.

Let’s go back to Thompson. I love Emma. I have loved her for a very long time… as an actress. She is, recall, an actress. And let’s take a further look at what she has said. “You can’t be a great mum and keep working all the time.” First off, this statement is definitional in nature. Clearly, you can not do anything while doing something else all the time. Second, this statement is inherently vague. Seriously, parse it out. Third, the interview was clearly an opinion piece, where she mused in a broad sense on her year “off” (during which she taught, by the way). Fourth, it was a very light piece, in which she spoke at times with tongue in cheek, and always, always, always came back around to her own experience. She even mentioned, “…if they can afford it.” Fifth, she’s a working mom! Has been a working mom for a long time, and has worked very hard for much of it. Sixth, for kicks, let’s turn the statement on it’s head and see if it would fly: “I, Emma Thompson, think that all stay-at-home moms should spend a little time working so they’ll know what that’s like.” Um… Call the front page! Emma is way cool! Oh yeah, and seventh, she’s an actress.

All that aside, she’s allowed to say that. I would even encourage her to say it, except that she might get publicly crucified for it.

As you might already be able to tell, the whole killing the messenger syndrome has got me quite frightened, as a writer and a publisher. Pretty sure you can see why. I don’t have delusions of fame as solid as Thompson’s (ahem, not that I would admit to you, anyhow), but I am very much invested in the need for a large range of free speech. Writers step on toes! They’re supposed to! And God help us if we actually get a call from Oprah! And she asks about immigration/gay marriage/Christianity/reproductive rights/working moms/racial tension/child-rearing (or whatever other issue has nothing to do with your job but could get you in big trouble for merely stating an opinion)! Or if, in that interview with Oprah, we just blurt out some loosely-held, half-cooked opinion in our subtext, like “Ridiculously famous, gorgeous and wealthy acting moms have bad days, too.”

Let’s break it down into my arguments for the Thompson statement. First, half the time what was said wasn’t that shocking or exciting to begin with. It’s just the buzz that makes it so. Second, I think that a lot of the time, people aren’t spouting some sort of deeply-entrenched, get-on-the-bandwagon, political ideology. They are just talking, working life out for themselves. Third, no one shares all of your opinions, or all of the cool, PC opinions. And that’s not only okay, it’s great! What is this? Some sort of mass-codependency issue? Fourth, context, context, context. So much of what passes for shocking statements these days is merely something ripped from its context. Think rest of the interview, think time, think place, think society… just think. Fifth, if one were to understand this person, would another, more nuanced story emerge? We are a culture of flash judgement–flash everything, that is for sure. Sixth, I find you can often turn the opinion over (into the negative) and discover one that would not be condemned. This tells me that freedom of speech is being undermined, and not something else (at least fundamentally). This further communicates to me that I should not exercise my freedom of speech because my culture has a bad habit of undermining, devaluing, and even using it against people. Seventh, I know that we remind famous people that they are role models all the time, but this is no way gives us the right to a smear campaign when their lives or words don’t match our ideals. They aren’t responsible for raising our kids or making our judicial decisions; they are responsible to the law (mostly, like, not hurting other people), and they are responsible for entertaining us (or challenging or inspiring, or however it is they get paid).*

And let me just throw eighth out there: sometimes what is said has been said in private. In that case: shame on you for thinking that’s our business. What happened to privacy? You want it. You need it. So extend this right to others, please.

Now, I’m going to break it down, as a writer. First, you don’t really have to even be all that off-base to start a downward spiral of public opinion. That means that we’re becoming–if we notice the trend–less confident as a profession. There’s no safety in benign writing, anymore. But who wants to spend their writing career being completely inoffensive? Let’s move on. Second, we are in a dangerous position, because even fiction can become fact in the current climate. I may personally oppose the opinions of my main character, but in the buzz that may not matter. Third, there are no universally held opinions, and there is no way to remain neutral as a writer. You are in danger. Fear for your career. But you might as well be bold, man! Fourth, at least writers have the ability to keep fictionalized opinions in context… until they’re not. Fifth, I do believe that the more people we can keep reading, the more we can help people to see actions or people in context and as complicated beings. Write nuanced fiction. Sixth, it will take braver and braver people to be in the public arena (as a writer is), just like in cultures where freedom of speech is officially limited. Seventh, we do have responsibilities to our society, as under the law. Okay. We also have a responsibility to entertain, challenge, and inspire, and hopefully those who do it more will get rewarded more and those who do it less will fall off. This is a strange, new world of publishing, PODs, selfies, indies, crowd-funding, and the like. Our industry has only just begun to settle, let alone deal with the demands of an increasingly caustic and decisive public opinion arena. Perhaps it will help if we keep our specific themes and issues clear and remind ourselves and others that generally, we are just human.

This is why we oppose the banning of books! This is why people in other countries fight and die for free media! This is why freedom of speech is a basic right of our democracy! Side-stepping the legal process in favor of viral-public trial is a thwarting of our basic rights. Writers, keep writing! Dodge the bullets of negative publicity and persist! And perhaps we can shine a light on the problem itself; that’s something we’re good at, at our best.

I’m skeptical. I’m going to have to keep my eyes and ears open. I’m going to have to consider the possibility of becoming a hermit writer. And I am going to continue to side with the people who say uncool, stupid, and sometimes even terrible things, because they can, and because I want to be free, too.


Have you noticed this trend? Do you think it’s real? Does it threaten you as a writer, and how or how not?




*Generally, society rewards those who uphold our standards, but that’s not even always true.

So let’s discuss means, while we’re on the subject. How does society properly reward or punish a person? Is it even in their scope? And should it be? Certainly, we do it, but it’s not organized in the sense that it is not a democracy. The punishment and rewards come from ambiguous, localized sources of power disseminated through the public and have no real restricting body except for this: they are not supposed to be slandering or usurping basic rights and freedoms or physically harming anyone. Criminality is supposed to be directed to the law. And then there is no way to uphold this when there is no one person perpetrating it. It is all of us. Throw the handcuffs on every Twitter-bug out there, every Facebook fanatic, for “like”ing the demise of a powerful person and contributing to their slander and infringement of rights. How did they do it? Protests and bans aside, this is no longer peaceful. We call for jobs! We call for unseating! We call for public humiliation! And protests and bans inside, we call for financial crippling, but long before we’ve thought it through, long before we’ve put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

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