Many Americans want to express their right to free speech. But, it seems that very few people want to be responsible for their right to free speech. There is a bit of wisdom that has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes something like this, “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” I learned this when I was a child and it has informed me for most of my life. What I gathered from it was that I should have some idea of what I am talking about before I share an opinion or just keep my mouth shut. Now, people who know me would never accuse me of being overly silent or keeping my mouth shut. I am a person of words. But, people who know me will also never accuse me of giving my opinion on things that I have not studied or have no experience of or no relationships with people who do have those experiences. That is what I call being responsible for free speech.
One of the great things about the times that we are living in is that more people have access to information than any other time in history. And one of the worst things about the times we are living in is that more people have access to information than any other time in history. Couple this with the fact that anyone with a device and internet access can become published with a click of a button, and you have a recipe for exactly what we’re experiencing, a pernicious preponderance of vocal vomit from information indigestion caused by a deleterious data diet. In other words, too many of us are taking in an unhealthy amount of information and then sharing it without going through a process of discernment to determine what should be repeated and what shouldn’t.
I have been known to wait up to a month to respond to some statements that people have made to me simply because I didn’t have enough knowledge on a subject or experience with the person’s point of view to warrant a valid opinion. I am not allergic to the words, “I don’t know. Can I get back to you when I have clearer information?” Unfortunately, in the American context, this approach is not valued as much as it could be. We have been enculturated to believe that leaders should have all of the answers and that just because we can say something, we should say something about whatever situation we are presented with. But, in my opinion, that is irresponsible in many cases.
In the work of bringing people together across differences, it can be very tempting to try to avoid challenging people to take more responsibility for their sharing because we want to “keep the peace”. But, when we take responsibility for our freedom of speech, we are also taking responsibility for creating actual peace based on informed opinions and authentic relating. That cannot happen when people interpret freedom of speech as reactively saying whatever they want with no reflection or concern for relational consequences.
In this video below, I talk about how important it is to pay attention to context when sharing content. In a later post, I will talk more about why we tend to share certain stories in our efforts to navigate the uncertainties of life and present ourselves in a certain light. My hope in lifting up the idea of responsible free speech is that it will lead to deeper relating both with those with whom we agree as well as those with whom we disagree. Because ultimately none of us have all of the answers. And knowing what we don’t know is just as important and responsible as knowing what we do know.
Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.Hebrew Proverb