What do you consider to be freedom of expression? The right to offend? The right to be offended? The right to say whatever or to let others say whatever? The right to be politically incorrect, the right to consider political correctness guilt as a form of lingering racism? The right to keep someone from saying things that are politically incorrect? The right to blaspheme? The right to define whatever blasphemy is?
Since the dispersal of the stupid anti-Islam video that riled violence-prone protesters in the Middle East and elsewhere, we've had a lot of talk about the need for freedom of expression, and a lot of talk about the lack of it in many parts of the world.
Even President Obama, addressing the United Nations this week wisely called for the embrace of freedom of speech and an end to violence (in particular terrorist-driven anti-American violence). As the president said, "Efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities."
This happens all too frequently in our world. And it's likely to continue to happen, if history is any guide. And I believe it is.
Now, people should be free to say what they want, no matter how idiotic or offensive that is. That's the nature of what the world as it should be: we should tolerate idiotic and even hateful expressions.
I, for one, am glad that political correctness rid us speaking casual derogatory terms for other ethnicities, other religions, other races. Still, some of these exist in other languages and countries: in French, for example, the term for ghostwriter, someone who does the legwork and writing for a person whose name will appear on a book, is "être le negre," that is, be the Negro for someone. This completely ignores the offensiveness to a race that was subject to slavery for so many years, and that still continues to suffer the indignities of racial intolerance.
You can't imagine someone saying that here, even if racism continues in much of our country. The president himself said in his UN address that although he has become used to people calling him awful things every day, he defends people's right to be offensive. You can't control what people think, and you shouldn't control what people say.
Now, I believe that the clarity in some instances is to risk being offensive. I don't mean to call someone out for being of a certain race or religion or anything like that. I mean to upset the standard way of thinking by looking at problem in a new way. I can be insensitive, but I'm not unkind. I'm not averse to referring to people collectively as stupid, even if I realize that I'm not the world's most educated person. The thing is, to make a point, you sometimes have to be blunt.
But that doesn't mean you have to be hateful. Still, you should be able to be as nasty as you want. That's your problem.
But we're probably going to be seeing more nastiness, more hateful speech, more divisiveness, as people are defined more by who they are not than by who they are.
We should be thinking in terms of community, but too often we're thinking, or beginning to think, of how one community is better than another, rather than simply alternative or different. We're in an era that my co-author Roy H. Williams and I call a "we" cycle, in our book Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future. In Pendulum we look at how during a 40-year social cycle people's way of looking at the world shifts. We talk about how society swings back and forth on a pendulum between individualistic "me" cycles, and civic-minded "we" ones. And that within each cycle, we begin to go overboard in our beliefs.
Our current "we" cycle, which is defined by a sense of community, of transparency and cooperation, began in 2003. But we're about to take things too far: we're about to define others by our own narrowing standards of what's correct. So, because someone doesn't think like us, that person becomes suspect.
The anti-Islam video, clumsy as it was, was a sign of that narrow thinking. And it was picked up by people eager to use anything to foster turmoil, unrest, violence and a vague anti-American, or anti-Western feeling.
Still, as ridiculously stupid as the video was, the murderous reactions to it were worse. But those reactions speak, in part, to a sense of powerlessness and isolation from the world. They show that not everyone wants to believe in our belief in freedom of expression, however dumb that expression may be, however intolerant of others it may be.
And intolerance is defining people by what they are not and despising them for it, no matter what side of the argument you are on.