I was more saddened than surprised that a Muslim friend knew about a recent Internet posting entitled “Punish a Muslim Day.” Someone or some group was promoting a type of game where various actions against Muslims would earn a person points.
On the day after that posting, I had lunch with my friend. He pointed to the baseball cap he was wearing with the phrase “I Love Muhammad” boldly printed on it. Because my friend is a retired firefighter who has remained in good shape, I understood that he wasn’t backing away from the challenge.
Every society has to balance the freedom of expression with respect for the community. We see examples in too many parts of the world where freedom of expression is almost non-existent, but in most of those countries, it isn’t respect for others that outweighs freedom of expression but rather respect for those in power.
In democratic societies, especially in Europe and the United States, freedom of individual expression carries considerably more weight. The problem for societies such as ours is trying to determine when freedom of expression has gone too far. Those who enjoy shouting or posting racist, sexist, homophobic terms, or words defaming another person’s religion are fond of hiding behind their right of free expression. For such people, the rule to live by is “if I can think it, I should be able to say it.”
It isn’t easy to decide when a joke, a movie, a book, or a posting on the Internet has gone “too far.” And when the courts try to determine that limit, matters can get quite murky. Nevertheless, societies benefit when respect for others, especially those who are perceived as different, is considered and taught as the norm.
The irony is that while all branches of the military and most corporations in our country punish those in their ranks who can’t control language that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or defaming of another’s religion, we as a society continue to frame such behavior as a “freedom.” And it doesn’t help when the president describes those in Charlottesville who were spewing such poison as “good people.”
During World War II, the phrase was “loose lips sink ships.” In our day, when social media invites everyone to get whatever bothers them off their chests and to hell with the feelings of others, we might ponder how “loose lips sink communities.”
The good news is that the answer to this problem has always been close at hand. As long as humans have wondered how to get along with one another, the religions of the world have offered the “golden rule.”
In this age of social media, the golden rule might be updated to read: say and post about others only what you wish others would say and post about you.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected]