Our Twitter-Driven Culture Threatens Free Speech

Monday, 24 Jan 2011 10:47 AM

By Kathleen Parker

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As a longtime champion of greater civility in public discourse and one who has led the charge for dialed-back rhetoric, may I respectfully take most of it back?

OMG, as we mutter quietly to ourselves. Heaven forbid we should say something offensive or slightly provocative, or, gasp, use a metaphor that slips the grasp of the mentally challenged.

The purse-lipped gossip formerly known as the little ol' lady next door has become the superego of the vox populi. We may be at risk of being bored to death by our better angels.

In the contest for popular outrage the past few days, we have several possible targets. Wait, scratch that. We don't "target" people anymore. We trace them with hearts and dot our I's with smiley faces.

Most infamous, of course, is the hysteria around Sarah Palin's political map, wherein she, or someone in her den of mama grizzlies, placed cross-hairs over congressional districts held by Democrats or other undesirable incumbents. One, alas, was over Tucson, where Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down.

That terrible event, perpetrated by a random killer whose political leanings are unclear but whose mental instability is not in doubt, thus has been connected to Palin. This history is well known so there's no need to rehash, but the debate about words and consequences shouldn't end there.

Palin reacted as she always does when criticized — "I am not going to sit down. I'm not going to shut up," which we know to be literally true — but she is surely justified in rejecting blame for a crime committed by a stranger, who, as far as anyone knows, has no affinity for Palin or any other human.

Her unrelated instructions to her minions — "Don't Retreat, Instead RELOAD!" — sound utterly appalling in light of what happened, but everyone knows Palin wasn't urging violence. She's an outdoorsy kind of gal who has made shtick out of her oneness with nature.

When she uses the language of hunting and shooting, she isn't speaking code to killers. She's dog whistling to Ted Nugent and other Second Amendment comrades.

You want real trouble in free speechery? Suggest that someone is Hitler-esque or a Nazi, as Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen recently did.

Cohen was trying to make the case that, in his view, Republicans have created untruths about healthcare reform that have become credible through repetition. Inartfully, he paraphrased a quotation often attributed to Joseph Goebbels: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Cohen should have remembered the famous quip that a lie travels halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its boots. A feather is better than a cudgel if you want to change people's minds as opposed to rearranging their skulls.

For my two cents, anyone who invokes Hitler or Nazis should be disqualified from public debate for muddled thinking and lack of originality. But the outrage that inevitably follows any utterance that displeases anyone's ear these days has become disproportionate to the offense.

This is partly a function of our Twitter-driven culture and the incessant replay of every fleeting thought — not to mention the ravenous appetite of the media beast — but it's also partly owing to a creeping tide of speech monitoring and sensitivity-on-command that deserves our attention.

Every now and then a public person is going to say or do something regrettable. I am beyond certain that our most beloved leaders were imperfect and must have said something inexact, without proper forethought or prescience. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt among other notables would be deeply grateful that they avoided these hyper-observant times.

Clearly, leaders are held to a higher standard and should be guardians of the light. Or, as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy recently put it with passionate precision: "We are guardians of ze words!"

But human beings are not built for perfection nor for constant scrutiny. We need time alone in our caves to reflect and imagine. We also need to be able to express our thoughts without fear of instant condemnation, granted time to reshuffle and regret, time to say, hey, I was wrong about that. Perhaps most of all, we need space to think more and talk less.

While we ponder that concept, at least we should hoard our outrage for the truly outrageous and our disdain for the truly hateful.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.


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