Monday, January 31, 2005

The future ain't what it used to be

Sometimes I'm glad I'm getting up there in years and probably won't live to see the world I see coming.

In what's described as the largest effort of its kind, 100,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools took part in a survey of their attitudes about First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press. The results, released Monday are not what you could call encouraging.
[W]hen told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
And when it's said that over a third think the First Amendment goes too far, that is of the whole sample, including the 21% who said they don't know enough to express an opinion. Of those who did express an opinion, 44% - close to half - agreed that the guarantee of freedoms goes "too far."

Students also were readier than their elders - by a margin of about 15 percentage points - to accept the idea of limiting expression of "unpopular" ideas (albeit while still showing strong support for the idea) and were less than half as likely as teachers and principals to actually think about First Amendment rights. The survey also made clear that many of the students did not understand what is and isn't protected speech.
"These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous," said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the $1 million study. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."
Interestingly, there was a bit of NIMBY going on: The students were more likely than the teachers and administrators to say that musicians should be free to sing offensive lyrics and they were significantly more likely to say that student newspapers should be able to write about controversial topics without interference from school authorities - more than twice as likely as principals. So is this a sort of "I have rights, you have privileges" response, an "I'm free to say what I want and you're free to agree with me" attitude? Certainly, seeing how quickly and easily many comment threads on various blogs break down into endless strings of insults - and not even creative or original insults, just the same old infantile name-calling; where is Ambrose Bierce when we need him? - indicates that for many, "free speech" consists wholly of the right to be rude, and the more sophomorically vulgar you are, the freer you are.

That could be chalked up to immaturity and indeed it does seem that many of the more hectoring sorts have missed their afternoon nap, except that it points to a deeper and more serious consideration. There is an equation, unspoken but visible, between free speech and power. Not empowerment (of the self), but power (over others). As if the right to speak was a prerogative of the powerful and "Shut up! Just shut up!" is the entirely appropriate response to opposition.

This is something of which the power-hungry right - not surprisingly - has been far more guilty than the more cooperatively-oriented left, but the left has been infected with the poison. Not that the left, while it can be censorious, is anywhere near the equal of the right in seeking to silence opposition - and we tend to focus our attention on expressions rather than expression, that is, terms rather than ideas - but that all too often we feel the need to demonstrate our right to express our ideas, the need to prove our right to speak.

When was the last time you heard some right-winger declare, for example, "I love my country but...?" So why do so many of us feel the need to make such pleadings? The fact is, every time we fall into that or any associated verbal trap we are simply reinforcing the idea that doubts about us of whatever sort are justified, because we clearly feel the need to defend ourselves against them. But still we do it, over and over. I can't help but fear that it's partly because we do believe, even unconsciously, that we have to establish that we are connected to the dominant power before our voices can legitimately be raised.

Footnote: I'm working this out as I go and it's hard for me to tease it out more clearly; maybe it's something I should just let sit for a time to tumble around my head and I can come back to it later.

Oh, and by the way, in this whole discussion about left and right I've been talking about them in the US context. So before anyone tries to slam me for saying that the left is less repressive than the right by bringing up some left-wing dictatorship or another, let me say now that I'll see you a Mussolini and raise you a Hitler and no, don't bother with the "it was called the National Socialist Party" crap; Nazi Germany was no more socialist than fascist Spain.

Or Saudi Arabia. Or Uzbekistan. Or Pinochet. Or Somoza. Or Ferdinand Marcos. Or the Shah. Or ... you get the idea.

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