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Let’s talk about Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Press.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism or consequence for what you say. It’s not freedom from people deciding they don’t like your speech. It’s not freedom from people expressing that they are offended by your speech. It’s not freedom from being held socially accountable for using speech to bully others. Legally, it’s not freedom from accountability for slander, or inciting violence. Morally, it’s not freedom from paying a social or economic price for being a jackass.

Humor is not a specially protected form of speech. Claiming that something was “just a joke” does not exempt it from social norms regarding what kinds of speech people find harmful to others. Humor is conventionally allotted a little extra latitude, because humor often functions, in part, by violating taboos in revealing ways, with neither the intention nor result of violating the underlying purpose of those taboos. But far from all violations of social taboos couched as jokes meet that criterion. A racist or misogynistic joke is still racist or misogynistic, regardless of it having been a joke.

There are some gray areas we have to grapple with: For instance: To what extent and under what circumstances is it okay for an employer to punish the speech of an employee? At one extreme, it’s clearly okay for an employer to fire a customer service representative who is in the habit of rudely berating customers when they call for assistance. At the other extreme, it clearly would violate the spirit of the First Amendment if corporations routinely punished employees in non-sensitive positions for expressing any political view at any time or anywhere other than that of the employer or of the employer’s clientele. There is a large and varied range of possibilities between those two, some areas of which are open to debate.

But, in public discourse, when people respond to criticism of their positions with a proclamation that that criticism is a violation of their right to free speech, they are engaging in a particularly convenient and hypocritical notion of what free speech is, for the person criticizing them has as much right to speak as they do, and to insist that their criticism be withheld in deference to your right to say what you like without being criticized for it is to insist that you but not they should be able to enjoy the right to speak freely.

A similar phenomenon occurs with freedom of religion. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, numerically and institutionally. Freedom of religion protects the right of people of all religions, including but not exclusively Christianity, to be able to practice their religion without governmental interference and to be able not to have any other religion imposed on them in any way through governmental agency. But fundamentalist Christians have come to interpret “freedom of religion” to mean their freedom to continue to have an exclusive right to impose the symbolism of their religion on others through governmental agency, and to be free from seeing anyone else ever celebrating any religion other than theirs in public.

Finally, and most recently, the pattern has reached freedom of the press. There is now an authoritarian populist demagogue in power, supported by an authoritarian populist base, that wants to redefine freedom of the press to mean “freedom of the press if we like what the press says,” reserving to themselves the right to declare what they consider to be true or false (independently of actual empirical evidence) and to use the power of government anything that they decree to be false, even if it is by all conventional methodologies clearly true.

All three of these misconceptions –the one that insists that freedom of speech means one’s own freedom to say what they like without any chance of reprisal or criticism from others but not other’s right to say what those others like if they disagree with it, the one that insists that freedom of religion means one’s own freedom to exercise their religion in public and expect exclusive governmental endorsement of it but no one else’s right to do the same, and the one that insists that the press is free to report and editorialize as they like, but that if they do so in a manner that a populist faction in power disagrees with, the government supported by that populist faction should have the power to silence them– are tyrannical interpretations of these fundamental freedoms.

Tyranny rarely announces itself by name. Frequently, particularly in the modern era, tyranny uses the language of liberty while exercising the substance of oppression and political thuggery. Please feel free to use this post, in part or in its entirety, whenever you come across these phenomena in public discourse. These freedoms exist because sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this post is designed to shed some sunlight on a horribly infected portion of our shared cognitive landscape.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

There was a wonderful little work of whimsy that went viral when the internet was still young, purporting to be a college admission application essay, in which the author (actually a high school student, though not actually a college admission essay) mentioned, among other things, that he engaged in full-contact origami to blow off steam (http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/blbyol3.htm). Earlier today, in my ongoing quest to populate the Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Colorado-Confluence/151536731532344) with a blend of interests that represent the particular mood and spirit of this blog, I “liked” the “Full-Contact Origami” page created, obviously, in honor of the aforementioned humorous romp.

I didn’t “like” it just in tribute to the creativity and humor of the essay, but also because I think the image represents something akin to what I am doing here: Folding and fashioning, not just with some appendage but with the entirety of my being, something from the fabric of consciousness which permeates us. Colorado Confluence is engaged in a kind of “full-contact origami,” striving to form fluttering figurines of thought both fantastical and functional, stretching minds in simultaneously edifying and useful ways.

If we consider our individual and shared existence an on-going enterprise of some kind, and our cocktails of conceptualization, complete with their blends of rhetoric and passions and projects, to be its perpetual product, then we can ask ourselves whether this cocktail or that might benefit from a pinch more humor, or a dash more reason, or another jigger of imagination. Perhaps in the heavy drinking of casual debate, we need to learn to go lighter on the rot-gut of dogma, and heavier on the sweet liqueur of humility. And perhaps even in the more staid environments of professional hobnobbing, we need to garnish our oh-so-serious martinis with a few more olives of whimsy.

Both the Romans (Pliny the Elder) and the Greeks (Alcaeus) famously intoned “In vino veritas” (“Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια” in Greek; “symposium,” by the way, being Greek for “drinking party”), but perhaps we should emphasize “in humor, truth” as well. When George Carlin, for instance, said that “some people see a glass that’s half empty, and others see a glass that’s half full, but I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be,” he struck upon a brilliant and timeless insight humorously stated: Things are what they are, regardless of how optimistically or pessimistically we choose to view them.

Once, when posting on Colorado Pols, a fellow poster “took the piss out of me” (as the Brits like to say) by posting a link to one of the many “Most Interesting Man in the World” pages (http://www.eatmedaily.com/2009/06/dos-equis-ad-campaign-the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-video/), and asking facetiously if he had stumbled upon my profile page, quoting the following excerpts:

The police often question him just because they find him interesting. His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body. His blood smells like cologne. He’s been known to cure narcolepsy just by walking into a room. His organ donation card also lists his beard. He’s a lover, not a fighter, but he’s also a fighter, so don’t get any ideas.

His reputation is expanding faster than the universe. He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels. He lives vicariously through himself.

His charm is so contagious, vaccines have been created for it. Years ago, he built a city out of blocks. Today, over six hundred thousand people live and work there. He is the only man to ever ace a Rorschach test. Every time he goes for a swim, dolphins appear. Alien abductors have asked him to probe them. If he were to give you directions, you’d never get lost, and you’d arrive at least 5 minutes early. His legend precedes him, the way lightning precedes thunder.

His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards. Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number. He never says something tastes like chicken. Not even chicken.

He is, quite simply, “the most interesting man in the world.”

Few insults have ever made me laugh harder, or feel more appreciated (though from the context that was clearly not the intent).

Maybe if we strive harder to be the most interesting people and most interesting society in the world, we’ll laugh as hard, and appreciate ourselves as much. Here’s to folding reality with all the dexterity our consciousness can muster, into the most edifying forms imaginable, laughing all the while.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

First, a preface: The title phrase was said to me in a recent exchange on another blog, in the typical context of denying that an obviously antagonistic comment couched as a joke was in fact antagonistic. I don’t want to exaggerate it, or imply that I’m holding a grudge: The individual in question may be a very nice and likeable person, all in all. But the phrase has always struck me as being disingenuous, and disingenuous in an instructive way, so I decided to write a post about it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that almost anytime anyone says “it was just a joke,” they’re wrong. The purpose of saying it is to discredit someone who was offended by the “joke,” and whether taking offense was justified or not, the fact that the statement giving offense was couched as a joke tells us nothing. There are many kinds of jokes that few would deny are offensive: racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes, to name a few. So there is nothing about something being a joke which implies that it can’t be offensive.

There are many things the jokester can say that are perfectly legitimate (if not always perfectly kind), such as “I really didn’t mean to offend you,” or “I think you misinterpeted what I’m saying,” or “at least I was trying to insult you in an entertaining way,” or “get used to being the butt of my jokes.” But “it was just a joke” means “I won’t even acknowledge your right to be offended,” and is at least as often used to try to compound an essentially intentional offense as to express sincere and innocent surprise that anyone could have been offended.

It’s the fact that it’s such a common phrase, so normal, so ubiquitous, and so representative of a prevailing attitude, that I find striking. We don’t engage in discourse so much as we engage in verbal and emotional warfare. We don’t seek to learn together, to edify one another, to challenge one another and grow in response to it, so much as we try to smite our enemies and fortify our positions. The title phrase is a verbal military maneuver, a way of check-mating an opponent, saying, “I not only just discredited you in an insulting manner disguised as humor, but if you try to parry, the fact that you do so is the basis for further insult and delegitimation.”

The speaker may win the battle by doing so, but we all lose the war, because “the good fight” is against mutual antagonism, and against ideological entrenchment. Next time someone says “it was just a joke,” tell them the joke’s on them.

(I have also noticed a slightly different use of the phrase, or some variation of it: To insulate a snide or ideological remark not directed at anyone in particular from criticism. So, one FB commenter who voiced appreciation for a post saying we should leave warning labels off dangerous items in order to weed out the “stupid” people by saying that it would be “natural selection” at work, responded to my comment that such uses of the concept of natural selection have long been reviled by declaiming, “it was said in jest…good grief.” In other words, as long as it was said in jest, no matter how much also in earnest, it is insulated from any criticism on the basis of the substance of what has been said. I’ve discussed other methods of insulating one’s ideological declarations from criticism in other essays as well: e.g.,  Un-Jamming the Signal and Scholarship v. Ideology.)

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