In this time of conflict between the concepts of political correctness and free speech, the barrier between the two can seem like a high concrete wall, never to be breached. But I prefer to think of it more as a fence. One can stand on either side of it. It is also low enough that one can attempt to straddle it -- to have a foot on either side. The latter option can come across as as seeking compromise -- but it can also be interpreted as wishy-washy indecision.
During my decades as a writer, I have been on both sides sides of that fence. But I haven't tried to straddle it. Whichever side side I've chosen, both of my feet have been planted firmly there.
For several years, I was an opinion columnist, then an editorial writer, for a local daily newspaper. Not surprisingly, some of the thoughts I expressed were controversial and unpopular. The editorials covered a wide range of topics, from local matters to world affairs. The opinion columns were more specific, focusing primarily on the volatile issue of race.
Of course, my pro-black stance on the latter matter generated a lot of disagreement as well as support. Commentators who were at the extreme level of disagreement wanted me to be censored, or even silenced altogether. If the newspaper had attempted to tone down or curtail anything I had written, I would have strongly and vociferously objected. In that instance, both my feet were placed resolutely on the free-expression side of the metaphorical fence.
Yet I also belong to a category of people who have been long-time targets of vitriol, opprobrium, and outright slander for centuries. As well, I and like-minded people have often wanted the promulgators of such views to be shut the (expletive deleted) up.
In response to such reactions, the hate-mongers often fall back on on their right to freedom of speech, which is one of the cornerstones of democracy. They also make the argument that that the best rejoinder to speech one doesn't like or agree with is "more speech."
During the past, I considered both these contentions to be specious. Of course, I support the right to freedom of speech. But the people who hide behind that right are also hiding from the obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of misusing that precious right.
There's a venerable old saying: "I may not agree with what you are saying, but will defend to the death your right to say it." That is a laudable sentiment. But when I am negatively affected by by what you say, I am more concerned about confronting those effects that I am with your right to express them.
As for the "more speech" argument, I used to believe that my time and energy were better spent on actually doing something about the ill-effects of the damage rather than simply talking further about the problem.
So, which side of the fence do I stand on now, in this age of "fake news," "trigger warnings," and "identity politics"? For all its pitfalls and perils, I have to keep my feet on the side of free speech, regardless of how reprehensible some of the others on that side may be.
Of course, free speech has its limits. Restrictions on slander and causing a panic, for example, are necessary. But overzealous suppression of invidious speech only drives its perpetrators underground, where they can hide until they explode like those roadside bombs in the Middle East.
When it comes to speech, sometimes it's better to fight fire with fire, even though some may get burned in the process. History has proven again and again that the effects of censorship and repression are far more harmful, and are on the wrong side of the fence.