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.