By Karen Kataline (firstname.lastname@example.org) I know it’s a stinky subject but the recent acquittal of Kathleen Ensz, of a criminal charge, for filling a political mailer with dog feces and returning it to Marilyn Musgrave’s office, got me thinking. Underneath the sheer entertainment value of reporting on the extent of political “dung-slinging” lies a profoundly serious issue. Ensz was acquitted on the grounds of free speech. But what exactly does that mean nowadays? We are living in a time when words are increasingly punished and seen as "violence" -- while actions, which used to be the only thing punishable by the courts, are now defined as speech and protected accordingly.
Is it any wonder that many of us are scratching our heads and wondering when it was that words lost their simple and direct meaning? Was it when Clinton made famous the phrase, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”? Or was it when Sunday morning pundits began celebrating how cleverly a politician could use words to obfuscate what he really thinks? Regardless of when it happened, I don’t think I am alone in my concern that the basic principles on which I grew up are being turned upside down.
Would the jury have voted for acquittal if say, Ensz had chosen to burn a cross on Al Sharpton’s lawn and called it free speech? I doubt it. Without clear principles that transcend personal tastes, we are up dung’s creek.
There is a well developed movement that has coined the phrase “verbal violence”. Barak Obama used the term when asked about the horrors at Virginia Tech in April. Obama went on to say that “much of the problem is rooted in our incapacity to recognize ourselves in each other.” Frankly, there is a limit to which I am willing to recognize myself in another—particularly a mass murderer. The blurring of distinctions between who is a victim and who is a perpetrator is another great contributor to this upside down thinking.
Today, the perpetrators of horrific crimes are characterized as victims and the victims of those crimes are asked to master the art of “forgiveness” in order to heal. What’s going on here? Erasing the line between what we think about doing and what we actually do is to ultimately erase personal responsibility for the choices we make. When those distinctions are lost, our safety and civility are at stake. Thought is action, action is thought. Criminals are victims, and victims are criminals.
The growing confusion about the simple and clear definition of free speech itself is also contributing to the problem The First Amendment protects you from being punished by the government for what you say. It does not protect you from being criticized by those for whom you work, clients you serve, or those who choose to watch your movies.
It occurred to me that one of the reasons so many people have trouble with this definition, is because they think of the government and all other private institutions as one in the same. We must stop moving in that direction. Protecting that distinction protects us all.
The right to be offended and the right to disapprove didn’t used to have to be explained and protected. Now, apparently it does. Making clear distinctions and respecting that words have specific meanings, is one of the ways we can turn the world right side up again.