Say What?

You hear the argument over and over again.  Censorship is a bad thing.  Free speech is a good thing.  Any attempts to limit any kind of speech threaten the right to free speech and should be done away with.

This argument is nothing new.  (  But it often appears very persuasive.
The fact of the matter is that speech is never – and has never been – completely free.  Every culture, every society has limitations of some sort on what they will permit people to say.  Often, these restrictions vary based on circumstances.  What can be said in a comedy club, for example, where people over a certain age are paying money and volunteering to listen to profanity and other things, is different than what is (or ought to be) acceptable in a preschool.  Certain types of comments such as threats, allegations, slander and the like are protected against by law as well.  As well, it is not permissible to use free speech to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, or to yell “Hi, Jack!” in the security line at an airport.  Clearly, free speech is a red herring, because it doesn’t exist.  
By and large we’re all just fine with that.  Reasonable limitations on the exercising of our right to ‘free speech’ ensure public safety.  But the issue of foul language in public places has been undergoing a lot of pressure in recent decades.  The assumption appears to be that any sort of language should be permissible in a public space, by nature of it being public.  Funny thing is, once upon a time not so long ago, speech in a public place was self-censored for precisely the same reason.  It’s just that people don’t seem to find it strange – or unreasonable – to be swearing their head off (congenially mind you, not angrily) on a cell phone while a family with small children stands nearby waiting for their turn at a drinking fountain.  I’ve experienced countless incidents of jovial swearing in other people’s casual conversations when sitting in airports and other public spaces.  
Once upon a time regardless of how one might choose to speak privately, or what one felt was acceptable or unacceptable speech, people censored themselves out of respect for others.  That’s no way to talk to a lady!   Watch your tongue – there are children present!  These sorts of comments were accepted as perfectly valid arguments against public obscenity in speech.  You might not personally agree that what you were saying was improper, but out of respect for others, you avoided speaking it publicly, or in a voice loud enough to be heard by others.
Now, the opposite is true.  The assumption seems to be that we can say whatever we like, within earshot of anyone, and nobody has the right to say shame on you.  Everyone else – including young children – must be subject to whatever foulness somebody chooses to yell into their cell phone.  Anybody who complains is accused of being some sort of rights-repressing fanatic.  The community has no right to expect certain modicums of behavior.  The community is rather held hostage by whatever any particular individual within it (or passing through it) feels it ought to be subjected to.
But there is a difference between oversensitivity and insensitivity.  There is a difference between taking offense at any old thing, or at things not widely considered to be offensive by the community at large, and refusing to allow someone their ‘right’ to not have to listen to certain forms of speech.  Cultures determine what is acceptable behavior and speech within their parameters.  Those who transgress those parameters are in some manner chastised, whether unofficially or officially.  The expectation is that if you wish to be a part of society, you respect the overall sensibilities of that society.  If you aren’t willing to show that respect, you probably don’t deserve to benefit from the society you’re refusing to respect.
There is a place for pushing the envelope.  The public park, or the mall, or any public space is not the proper forum, however.  If an artist wants to push the limits, they are free to do so within the parameters of an exhibition of their work.  Or a performance, someplace where those who are interested in what they have to say can come and hear, and those who aren’t interested do not have to be subjected to language or images that are clearly beyond the parameters of communal acceptance.  I may disagree with an artist’s pushing of the envelope, but so long as I am not forced to view or hear it, and so long as I am not forced to compensate them for it via my tax dollars, I’m happy to have them push their envelopes.  But when I’m forced to pay for it or encounter it, I take issue.  

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