Oxymoron is not a description of a hopelessly stupid person. It is a word, an expression that contradicts itself — although some naughty people, thinking of some congressmen, prefer the earlier imagined definition.
The object of my annoyance of late is the confusion in the exercise of one fundamental right guaranteed in our Constitution, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not freedom of no-holds-barred-anything-goes ululation. It has, of course, limitations other than that which carry jail terms. In short you are free to talk your head off but there is also talk you are not free to orate — or you make yourself a fool or a jailbird. This is why free speech is an oxymoron.
Freedom of speech is a great gift of democracy. It should give us joy, not license; it should spawn optimism, not despair; spread wisdom, not absurdity; proclaim cordiality, not hostility; affirm truth, not falsity. Beautiful as motherhood statements go, but sadly we have become inured to talking in bombast and without exercising our brain that I doubt if we can go back to our old culture of gentility and to talking sensibly and softly.
How should we handle our freedom-of-speech blessing? Not many months back a TV host wondered aloud in his concert how rape can be consummated on another TV personality, given the fact that the personality is physically on the heavy side. It was a joke, or meant to be a joke and it produced gales of laughter all right but it also generated a storm of condemnation for the entertainer because according to his bashers, what he said was completely out of line, vulgar.
He was not without defenders. What’s the big fuss, they asked. He was just exercising freedom of speech, for crying out loud! Quoting libertarian John Adams, his supporters urged him to stand firm on his right of free expression:
“Be not intimidated, therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice.”
There are two sides, it looks to me, about the issue of free speech. One side holds that freedom of speech is exactly what it says it is: free expression — untrammeled, unhampered freedom to vocalize what one has in his guts and mind. The other side prefers freedom of speech restricted maybe by law but more by caprice, personal bias and bigotry.
I choose the middle ground.
I cannot accept one has a right to talk his head off at whatever time and place and on a subject he chooses any more than he has the right to defecate where and when and in what manner pointed out to him by his heart. This is not the way of a civilized society. As said in Ecclesiastes, there are parameters of time and place for every human action. If there were none then it’s perfectly all right, to paraphrase Justice William Douglas, to holler “sunog!” in a jampacked cinema.
Nor can I accept the view that one can gag another who expresses a thinking contrary to his own. Truth can stay hidden in a situation where contrary opinions are not allowed to flourish in the marketplace of ideas. An astronomer in the Age of Enlightenment was caught in a dilemma when he was ordered by religious authorities to stop talking about a certain star not staying stationary. Say it stays where it is, its fixed place unmoving, he was told. The astronomer obeyed albeit muttering to himself the truth: “But it moves.”
I think a way should be found to bridge the gap between the libertarians who are unmitigated believers and practitioners of free-wheeling freedom of speech, and the conservatives who are scandalized by the growing licentiousness and indiscipline of the libertarians.
An ethics code would help to put some order in the exercise of free speech for the libertarians, and for the conservatives, parameters on where and in what manner they can give cautions and reminders to libertarians.
Yes, freedom of speech is sacrosanct but let’s have some ground rules. Then, we won’t have to cover our children’s ears from speeches by our high officials peppered with cusses and indelicate words.
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Gualberto B. Lumauig (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a past president of the UST Philosophy and Letters Foundation and former governor and representative of Ifugao.
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