The latest “freedom of speech” battleground is the Duck Dynasty / Phil Robertson and Justine Sacco brouhaha. Should people be allowed to say whatever it is they want?
There’s a good reason why rhetoric was a key discipline in ancient Rome. Talk of “freedom of speech” and “rights” always come down to where we set boundaries since no society permits “absolutes”: freedom of speech or “rights”. If the Prime Minister of Britain calls all Scots “dogs” and that’s his personal view can we prove that would get in the way of his job? But most sensible people would find it unwise and unacceptable. Yet no doubt some folks will say something akin to this in private. But who cares about their private party views.
The reason why we fret so much about what people say in public is the naivety and gullibility of a large class of people to run with not just “offensive” but “dangerous” views. If views are merely “offensive” then people should get a life. But when views are dangerous then they inspire a large number of people to justify actions that are incompatible with social progress: equal rights and considerations for women, LGBT, ethnic minorities etc. [Cases in point: Russia’s hardening conservatism; Africa/Caribbean where people are emboldened to call for gay lynchings; here in the West where some think women who are raped must have been asking for it).
If the overwhelming populace were rational and sensible and not easily corrupted then yes, “freedom of speech” to everyone to say whatever they want, knowing fully well that the ill effects will be close to zero. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world. l agree with some people that one might expect a redneck to say the most outrageous things about blacks and gays. But then again last night I watched for the first time Paul Mooney an American black comedian who thinks Jesus was black. Some of what he said about white people was uncomfortable (even offensive?) and true. Some of what he said was offensive and complete bull. There were people in the audience nodding as if he was a prophet. But how many people listen to him? If he was the president of a country or a very prominent figure with the ability to influence a large number of people: whoa! I would think the man should be called to account.
The case of Justine Sacco. If she holds these views (and especially as a white person born in South Africa) is she likely to employ black people of any distinction in any job better than a servile one? That surely will get in the way of her working effectively for an “equal opportunities” employer.
This is not something out of Euripides. This stuff happens around the corner from you and from me and what a stupendous waste of two lives. A tragic story that highlights the immense fragility of the human mind. Any rational third party can see that killing yourself and your child (in a custody battle or even for any other reason) deprives you of all the future joy that could come from a continuing relationship with that child. Where it’s a custody battle that mother wins: there is still (i) the possibility of continuing access (ii) the probability of someday re-commencing relationship assuming mother relocates out of town either for good reasons or out of spite (iii) the option of having other children.
But oftentimes we, as humans, can’t see the road for the fog; the fog of our own distress. And when we are choked up by the emotion of the moment and the “apparent” hopelessness of our situation it’s frequently the case that we go “off the rails”. This is human nature and maybe never entirely avoidable. Arguably this man loved his son deeply and the thought of being separated was too much. But then again he did not value the life of the child above his own heartbreak and/or he hated the mother so much that punishing her was more important: “If I can’t have him neither will you”. Or he just went crazy. Considering that four years ago, these two were making love with tremendous joy and hope and it’s come to this. She will now be haunted and scarred by this for the rest of her life. A sad waste of, really, three lives.
Some other stories of fathers going off the rails: