In an online magazine article, a blog writer told of her experience shopping with her three young children in a crowded store. She expressed her opinion that children are not valued in our society. I was amazed at the number of negative comments she received, most polite, but some resorting to name-calling. The one that stuck in my head, though, was that of someone who ended his remarks by telling her not to waste people’s time by publishing her thoughts in a public forum. I wanted to reply, “Who forced you to read it? Why should she be blamed for your choice to read and comment on what she wrote, her freedom of expression curtailed because you felt you wasted your time?”
Seems like it makes no sense, right? But it reminded me of another incident that “stuck in my craw” even more. Some months ago my daughter and I were hanging out in an ambulatory care waiting room, there to support a friend who was having surgery and to drive her home afterward. Being a people watcher, I studied some of the other occupants. There was a man there alone, waiting for his wife. There were two sets of grandparents and a set of parents waiting for a child. There was a woman on her cellphone, calling for reinforcements as she needed to be somewhere else, Eventually an older woman joined her; they both spent some time there, and then the first woman left. The TV was on and one news item was the upcoming local visit of President Obama to some rally or event. One of the grandpas remarked that he’d heard on the news earlier that they weren’t expecting many people to show up. There was an implication, perhaps, of the declining popularity of the president. Mind you, these were just six people sitting in a waiting room, facing each other and making conversation to pass the time.
The older woman, sitting on the outside of this family circle and apparently preparing to leave, said angrily, “You need to watch what you’re saying in public.”
The old man, taken aback, answered, “I’m just repeating what I heard.”
“Well, you need to watch what you say because not everyone agrees with you, ” she retorted, and then she marched out of there.
The rest of us looked at each other in surprise, commented about the inappropriate nature of the woman’s statements, and let it go….except that I couldn’t. It kept coming to mind and irritating me. What right did this woman have to tell someone to be quiet because she didn’t want to hear what he was saying? He wasn’t being loud or rude or uttering profanity; he was just expressing an opinion. This incident came to mind again when I read that comment on the article; apparently that commentator also felt he had the right to tell the blogger not to write what he didn’t want to read.
What’s going on here?
This used to be a country where the free exchange of ideas was encouraged. No longer. Our freedoms to express our opinions verbally, in writing, or through media have been seriously curtailed. There will always be someone who takes offense, someone who will then express his dissatisfaction by attacking the perceived offender, and it seems that in these days the political system is on his side. The ability to have a rational discussion of different opinions with the goal of understanding one another’s point of view is something we are fast losing.
Are we going to allow ourselves to be muzzled? Or are we going to continue to speak, write, and portray what we think despite those whose loud opposition to free expression is the real “hate speech.”