Not too long ago, the Supreme Court ruled that it was okay for Westboro Baptist Church to picket military funerals with their lunatic and insulting protests and signs. And much has I have disagreed with the SCOTUS on their rulings lately, this one I get.
The people of Westboro are probably certifiable; even the wackiest of the Tea Partiers and right wing extremists think Westboro people are nuts. That's how out there they are. And their protests are insulting to our men and women who have served this country.
But the SCOTUS said they had the First Amendment right to be out there, being offensive and rude and insulting and provocative. And they do.
Whatever else you want to say about Westoboro Baptist Church and their insanity, they're open and up-front about what they believe. They're in your face about it and they don't hide behind shill tactics and sneaky rhetoric. With these guys, you know where you stand.
Which is basically with most of the rest of the world in thinking they're cuckoo.
I'm convinced the people who thought the SCOTUS ruled in error on this one are the same folks who scream that their First Amendment rights are being violated when other point out their fallacies, inconsistancies and outright lies. They're the folks who believe deep in their hearts that the First Amendment protects THEIR speech, not anybody else's. These folks are neighbors to the folks at Westboro, and they're a bit more frightening because they're substantially more numerous.
Okay, this is going to seem like a non sequitur, but hang with me.
I've developed a somewhat questionable and unsavory habit, one I'm very much aware of but haven't tried to really stop. At least not yet.
I'll read a news story online and get the basic drift of it, maybe read the whole article, maybe not, but then I'll read the comments afterward. I'm growing addicted to what people have to say about, well, anything. From the latest updates on Japan (Bright Blessings on them, have you noticed that there's no panicking, no looting? They're behaving like adults in this situation. The US would not fare nearly as well, I'm afraid) to something as mundane as "Dear Abby", I read the comments.
Not all of them, certainly. Frequently there are thousands. I just skip through and see what the general tenor is, get a feel for what people are thinking.
And here's the dilemma. Not my addiction, sad as it may be, but the fact that comments are so frequently anonymous. This is where Free Speech meets responsibility.
It's been said, and I believe it, that on sites where your name is required, where you have to say up front who you are so that at least the moderator is able to make you own your words, that the conversations are much less commented on, and the discussions are much more intelligent.
But the flip side of that is that people have to curb their true feelings because it can come back and bite them in the butt. People have learned that what goes out on the Web stays out there forever. So if someone says something unpleasant or controversial, it's possible for an employer, a spouse, a church memeber, someone in authority, to find it and use it against you.
So if you're looking for work and you've got a job interview, and on some website you support white supremacists and it turns out your boss is African American, it is entirely possible that you can not be hired and you may never know why. Or you can be fired, if your statements are too overtly awful and it reflects on your employer.
That's why a lot of people insist that commenting anonymously protects their First Amendment rights to free speech without threatening their livelihoods. And I do understand that.
I really, seriously, honestly believe that the proliferation of anonymous commenting is a huge part of the reason that we are no longer a civil society. People don't have to be civil online because there is no punishment for being threatening or provocative. And I believe that's what's spilling over into the way we have begun to behave in person.
It's not like you're looking at someone when you say they should be beaten up. You're responding to pixels on a screen. How dangerous is that? So people don't see the actual results of what they're promoting.
Then too, if you wanted to write a hate letter, a threatening letter to someone in the past, you had to sit down, write it out, find an envelope, address it, scrounge up postage, and trudge to the mail box. Now you can sit in your jammies eating Cheetos and say all manner of horrible things to people you've never met, taking offense at not much because it gives you something to do.
Or picking fights that you don't mean simply because you're bored.
So that's my quandary. At what point does freedom of speech need to be tempered with responsibility? At what point does the First Amendment get curtailed in the name of civility and justice? It's such a delicate thing, a case-by-case situation, and yet it seems to me that somehow we have to take control of our dialogues again.
I moderate the comments here, mostly for spam, but there are times when I want to head off a misunderstanding before it blows up out of proportion, as it might if things were left unmoderated. Honestly, I think that's only happened twice in all the time I've been doing this -- six years now, can you believe it? -- and that's partly because I don't get the traffic of the big sites, but also because people know that their comments are named. I'm willing to bet many of you have considered saying something in response to something I've said, but have backed off, perhaps out of respect for me but also out of the knowledge that others will form opinions about you because of it. Am I right?
And that goes to civility and responsibility. But it also curbs your right to say exactly what you want. And I'm torn between thinking that's a good thing and a bad thing. Hence the quandary.