WHAT CAN IT COST?
Does an opinion have the same value no matter who expresses it? Is free speech the same for everybody? Let’s consider principles.
Clearly, “value” or “weight” is still too broad a term to get to the heart of the matter. Donald Trump’s opinions about who should be nominated for the Supreme Court carry more weight than just about anybody’s. But his opinion about who should be on the Illinois Supreme Court doesn’t count for as much as the opinions of a long list of people. It is a matter of authority.
When authority to mandate action is not involved, the value of one opinion over another might be based on expertise. In the case of the present pandemic, two areas of expertise vied for dominance. In countries where political-economic authority yielded to medical expertise, as happened here in Thailand, the outcome has been satisfactory response to the pandemic, so far. That has been the case because among medical experts the epidemiologists’ opinions were given the most value. Circumstances put epidemic specialists at the top of the pyramid of medical expertise.
When expertise is not pivotal, some other factors will still pertain. Let’s say Noi and Lek want to get married but Grandfather is against it and declares he will cut them out of his estate if they get married. It becomes a matter of money most of all. Noi and Lek may let the money talk, or they may go their own way. If just about everybody joins Grandfather it becomes a matter of family unity. Noi and Lek will have to consider the value of all factors. But Grandfather’s opinion will have more impact than cousin Nit’s.
Obviously, circumstances matter. Decisions also have consequences which may not be predictable.
When Greta Thunberg decided to spend Fridays on strike from school to draw attention to climate change nobody would have guessed her singular action would expand into the crusade of the year 2019. Nor would we have dreamed that the death of George Floyd would become the rage of 2020. In both cases initial images in mass media incited massive response. Neither Greta nor George was a celebrity before that.
J.K. Rowling, however, was a celebrity before her words about Trans women generated responses that divided opinions about her into separate camps. It is only because she is a celebrity with a following in the millions who value what she says, that her thoughts about Trans women got widespread attention. It was not her ideas as much as her celebrity status that led to consequences, including boycotts of Potter-products, negative reviews of her productions, attacks on her character, and anger deflected onto any who are nearby (reportedly including children who sent her drawings to be used in Internet postings).
These expanding consequences have alarmed some authors who are passionate defenders of free speech. Diverse ideas should be welcome, free speech advocates argue. Free speech should generate debate, but not destructive consequences that intimidate speakers, stifle free expression, and cause harm. Under normal circumstances free speech generates valuable diversity. 2020 is a year of stress and crisis that exacerbates social and political divisions and that tends to distort the meaning of things that are said. A comment about the weather can turn political as fast as a lightning flash. There is a trend in these postmodernist times to expand a disagreement into a cause. What radical free-speech advocates seem to want is speech for all without consequences. Is that reasonable?
If Karen, a housewife in Middle America, rants on Twitter that “Trans women are men in drag” the danger to Trans women in India would not be as great as if J.K. Rowling says it. Rowling has a large following in India. What she says might incite the already excitable anti-Trans traditionalists. There is a difference between the value of the idea when articulated by Rowling rather than Karen. The value is greater when the one expressing it is greater – when that speaker has a greater audience, greater influence on events, or greater moral authority.
Is there a double standard imposed on celebrities with big followings, authority figures whose offices give power, or moral leaders (as pastors and teachers are supposed to be)? We know the answer is, “Yes, their status is greater so their accountability is greater.” Is the double standard fair? Celebrities have acquired their status and the wealth, glory, and power that comes with it by accumulating a following to whom they are accountable whether they like it or not. This following can have expectations. To correctly assess and then refrain from defying those expectations is the price of keeping one’s status and its benefits, as well as one’s ability to be a change agent. When a person of status begins to feel the price is too high she is free to take the risks that go with defying and disappointing her following.
Yes there is free speech in a free country, but it is not free of consequences.
The issue often becomes, “Upon whom are those consequences visited?”
Donald Trump’s leadership as COVID-19 struck the USA illustrates the fact that ideas, expressed by ones whose ideas are valued, can influence action. Trump did not want the pandemic to distract from his re-election, so he disseminated the idea that COVID-19 is not significant – no need for masks, closed businesses, or prolonged interruptions of daily life. And he stuck by those ideas as long as possible. Millions of Trump supporters to this day resist advice that has saved lives in other countries. Donald Trump has led the country into the greatest medical crisis of this century. It is not entirely a matter of free speech when the President speaks. His right to say what he thinks is limited by the consequences his speaking will have.
We of little comparable power, have only the option of greater numbers. If police operating vindictively backed by paramilitary equipment and presumptions become unaccountable to the population they have pledged to protect and serve, only massive protests have a chance to arrest the danger.
Our free speech must have sufficient volume and visibility. That is our undeniable right. Sometimes we may have to march for it. These days we can sometimes be heard by clicking “Like” or posting memes. Sirisak, whose picture accompanies this blog, has developed images as a form of free speech into an art form. What we buy or refrain from buying can send a message. Occasionally a trip to the ballot box on Election Day will let us amplify our voice to the volume we need.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.