Defending the Divisive

I recently engaged in a bit of online debate with a friend who was supporting the banning of the Confederate flag. His primary argument was that the flag is divisive, and there is no reason to display, or allow for the display of, a symbol that creates division. This is a lovely-sounding argument, perhaps…until you really stop and consider where this road might go. Freedom of speech is not limited to speech that is pleasant or unifying or noncontroversial. If you doubt that, just turn on Fox News or CNN. Watch a presidential debate. Read the newspaper. In fact, read, watch or listen to almost anything and it will not take long for you to find something with which you will not agree. That is the dual effect of free speech–you get to share your opinions and convictions but so too do the folks that disagree with you!

I do not want to make this about the Confederate flag. I have opinions on it, and you might too. I love U.S. history–learning about it and teaching it. The Civil War, or The War Between the States as my southern friends call it, is an incredibly important of American history. It would be impossible to whitewash our history and foolish to try. If you want to have a conversation about the flag itself and whether or not it should be displayed, let me know. We can have that conversation. My emphasis in the discussion with friend, though, and my emphasis here, is not on the Confederate flag or any other specific object. Instead, my emphasis is on the dangers involved with limiting speech–even offensive speech (and I am using the inclusive definition of speech here, to include nonverbal speech such as the display of a flag). I have referenced the dangers of slippery slopes in this space on numerous previous occasions, and this is another such slippery slope.

Why is this a slippery slope? Because if we are going to limit offensive or divisive speech then we have to give someone, or some group of someones, the power to decide what is offensive. I am incredibly reluctant to allow any person or group of people that power. If we are going to limit offensive speech then we necessarily must allow there to be consequences assigned when speech which is deemed offensive or divisive persists. We all know that freedom of speech is not absolute. The most common example given of limiting speech is this one: you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Why can’t you? Simple. Doing so potentially puts lives at risk. Human nature being what it is, people will panic and scramble to get out of the theater, quite possibly leading to injuries and even deaths in the ensuing melee. Speech that results in panic or violence, however, is quite different than speech which offends or divides.

If we decide to ban the Confederate flag today, what comes next? Who gets to decide if something is offensive or divisive? And how many people have to be offended or divided before we consider it necessary to ban the offending and dividing speech? After all, plenty of people are offended by plenty of things. A Dallas Cowboys fan is probably offended by a Washington Redskins flag. Oh wait, that’s right, the Washington Redskins are automatically offensive because of their name and their mascot. The courts are already attempting to force that change by removing their trademark protection. Plenty of people, including me, are offended by the rainbow Doritos being offered to those who donate $10 or more to the It Gets Better Project, but that does not mean Frito-Lay should not be allowed to make and sell them. The number of examples I could give–and that you could give–of potentially offensive or divisive speech are innumerable.

Most important for those of us who profess to be followers of Christ is that the cross is offensive and divisive. Let us not be fooled into thinking that the banning of Redskin mascots and Confederate flags today cannot or will not lead to the banning of the cross tomorrow.

Killing the Messenger

You are likely familiar with the scene in Numbers 13-14 when the twelve spies sent to scout out the Promised Land come back and give their report to the people of Israel. The report is unanimous that it is a good land but ten of the twelve spies are focused more on the fact that the land is occupied by giants. “Now way,” they say, “can we take this land. We are like grasshoppers compared to those guys!” Caleb and Joshua, though, tell the people that their focus is in the wrong place, that God has promised them this land and therefore they have nothing to worry about. God is on their side! Verses 6-9 of Numbers 14 read like this:

And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

Sadly, the people do not listen to Joshua and Caleb. They are not swayed by the reminder of the fact that God will surely deliver the land to them. This is a pattern with the Israelites, of course. Despite all of the incredible things they saw God do, from the ten plagues in Egypt to parting the Red Sea, from providing water from a rock to manna from the sky, and oh-so-much more, the Israelites had an incredibly short memory. Every time the going got rough they started longing for Egypt again. “Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” they ask in verse 3. “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” In their defense, the Israelites are equal-opportunity forgetters–they also forget the terribly conditions and the way they were treated when they were in Egypt.

The incredible thing about this story, though, is that the people do more than say, “No, we’re sticking with the ten–it’s too hard and we’re not going to try.” Not satisfied with opposing those who take a stand for God, the crowd wants to kill them. Verse 10 of Numbers 14 says, “Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones.” The rest of verse 10 makes it clear that God intervened and protected Joshua and Caleb. Still, I find it striking that the Israelites could not just disagree with them, they wanted to kill them.

I think we live in a day and age when this will becoming more and more the reality. We already live in a world when taking a stand for biblical truth is unpopular, when those who speak the truth are shouted down and told to shut up. They are labeled as intolerant or having some kind of phobia. Eventually, though, I think we could find ourselves in a situation like Joshua and Caleb found themselves. Such an environment already exists in some parts of the world, and we would be naive to think it could not happen here. Freedom of speech no longer means what it used to. We already see economic repercussions for having an opinion or taking a position that is not politically correct, from city councils asking for pastor’s sermons to cake shops being find exorbitant sums for declining to bake cakes for homosexual marriage ceremonies. Non-profit organizations fear losing tax-exempt status if they stand for biblical principles. In other words, we’re already heading down this road.

Yes, I know it is a long way from fines to executions, but I am not sure it is quite as long a way as we think. Standing for the truth will become more and more expensive, I fear, and the cost may soon be much more than money.

Free Speech

I was amused as I read through the January 12 issue of WORLD Magazine to find that two of the magazine’s articles–located just three pages apart–were completely contradictory. I was further amused to discover that I thought both articles were wrong. Here’s the situation…

On page 59, Daniel James Devine wrote a piece entitled, “Speech impediments.” In it, he argued that Facebook, YouTube and Apple are guilty of online censorship and that everyone (but Christians in particular) should be concerned about the decisions being made by these companies. He cites examples such as Facebook’s deletion of a photo showing “an unveiled Arab woman in a sleeveless top, holding, in a call for liberation, a passport photo of herself wearing the hijab“, and Facebook’s temporary censorship of Mike Huckabee’s “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” held last year in support of Dan Cathy. According to Devine, Facebook apologized for both instances and “claimed the content had been removed by mistake.” Devine also cites Apple’s permanent removal of applications from Exodus International and Manhattan Declaration on its AppStore, and YouTube’s removal of Pastor Ryan Faust’s video warning against gay marriage, since YouTube considered the video to be hate speech.

Three pages later Mark Bergin wrote a piece entitled “Switch hitters” in which he took to task sports journalists for straying from reporting and commenting on sports to commenting on social issues and politics. He cited Bob Costas’ arguments for tighter gun control laws during a halftime show on Sunday Night Football following the murder/suicide by Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher and sportswriter Jason Whitlock’s comments on the same incident. Bergin also mentioned ESPN’s reprimand of golf analyst Paul Azinger criticizing President Barack Obama for playing too much golf while devoting so little attention to job creation. Bergin cited ESPN’s policy that its reporters and personalities are to “avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.” Bergin concludes the column by pointing out that sports journalists have a responsibility to provide “relief from greater concerns” and that “when the sports pages carry reports of murder and suicide, all notions of fantasy and escape are lost….” In other words, Bergin wants sports journalists to stick to talking sports and avoid discussing their opinions on anything else.

So the irony comes from Devine lamenting censorship from social media companies while Bergin is asking for censorship of sports journalists. Here’s why both are wrong…

First, the social media platforms that Devine is concerned about are the creations of companies that have chosen to provide a service. But Apple, Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook are not public utilities (which, by the way, Devine does acknowledge). His suggestion that “users should be free to publish whatever they choose, like newspaper editors” is foolish and naive. Newspapers are protected against censorship from the government, but not from their own editors or owners. A newspaper editor can exclude anything he or she wants from a newspaper. Who in the world would suggest that newspapers should print everything that is submitted to them, whether by reporters or by the public? Devine says that “platform providers…should serve all customers even if they disagree with the content provided.” That’s just silly. WORLD has a web site, and it is free for anyone to access. But I guarantee you it would not allow or leave up comments that it deemed inappropriate or offensive. It’s not as if Google, Apple and Facebook are the only ways in the world for people to get out their messages. If they choose to censor content, so what? Let them. If it troubles you, find another outlet to make your voice heard. if it troubles you enough, stop using their services. If it troubles you to the point that you just cannot sleep at night, and you have the wherewithal to do so, start your own platform and let people post, publish and share anything they want without guidelines or censorship of any kind.

Devine quotes Craig Parshall, the director of the John Milton Project for Free Speech at National Religious Broadcasters, expressing concern that these companies, because of company policies, can remove user-generated content they find offensive, “even if it would otherwise be lawful.” Of course they can; they created and/or own the platform, so they can create any policies they want. We, the users, volunteer to abide by them when we choose to use the services they provide. The fact that the speech may “otherwise be lawful” does not mean any company must allow it to be disseminated through its service(s). I am sure Parshall would not suggest that Christian radio stations should be required to air radio content its owners found offensive, so why should Facebook or YouTube be required to leave up content their owners find offensive? Our country is full of places that have established their own censorship rules, and many of them are religious–schools, camps, colleges, etc. There are some things students at the school where I serve cannot say or where or advertise without having consequences–possibly as severe as expulsion–even if their speech would “otherwise be lawful.”

Mr. Bergin, on the other hand, is suggesting that sports journalists should be prevented from sharing opinions that are not within the narrow parameters of “sports journalism.” First of all, if the on-air commentators of sporting events stuck to talking solely about the games being broadcast, there would be a lot more silence during the games. That would probably not be a bad thing, actually, but my point is that they stray often from “the subject at hand.” Should they be censored for doing so only when what the talk about is potentially offensive to someone? Second, sports journalists work for companies or at least have to sell their work to companies; shouldn’t the companies have the say in whether or not to censor them? If I don’t like what Bob Costs or Jason Whitlock or Paul Azinger has to say, I do not have to listen to read them. But am I really sure I want to suggest that they should not be allowed to say those things?

As I said, it was incredibly ironic to find these two articles just pages apart, since one argues that companies providing public platforms should not censor the content contributed by the public, while the other suggests that companies providing platforms for information to be disseminated to the public should censor the opinions being disseminated. And, as I said at the outset, I think Messrs. Devine and Bergin are both wrong. I guarantee you I want the right to censor or regulate that which I have created and/or own. Why? Because that in and of itself is free speech!