LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Freedom of speech, civil (and uncivil) discourse

The right to freedom of speech is a precious freedom. Not all people in the world have it, so, those of us who do should feel blessed.

But it has limits: We are given the classic examples of the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, and the prohibition against the prank of falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Those are extremes, but they illustrate the very important fact that the right to freedom of speech is not the right to say just anything one wants to say. One is not entitled to say something that would result in injury to others. That includes injury to the reputation of a person by making defamatory remarks.

As with any precious gift, misuse or squandering of freedom of speech diminishes its value: speech that has been diluted by many unneeded words and phrases confuses meaning and loses impact.

A prime example of this is speech liberally interspersed with expletives, suggesting the speaker had little real to say. That this is not always the case is true, but the unnecessary expletives are often used to fill in for clear thinking and speaking.

The more usual situation is when the speaker (or writer) simply uses many extra words to say what could have been said better briefly.

Another trap into which we fall that diminishes the value of our speech is excessive use of labels. This is a more subtle harm, but becoming more and more common.

Labels are used to identify or describe someone or something.

One problem arises when we ourselves don’t do the actual investigation needed to arrive at the description. We take someone else’s word for how to describe a person or thing, and then, we use the description (label) over and over again, losing sight of what it actually means.

This is a foolish practice, engaged in — let’s face it — by fools.

Labels are useful, to expedite communication, but each of us should understand the full meaning behind each label we use.

When a label has been devised simply to reveal the speaker’s negative opinion of the person/thing labeled, it serves that purpose well, but certainly does not contribute to the meaning of a sentence in which it is purely gratuitous.

It must be said that many of the letters to the editor in this newspaper squander much of their precious freedom of speech in labeling people/things negatively — even viciously — to the lessening of the value of what the writers actually try to say.

It would be better if they let facts and logic carry their arguments instead of relying on “calling names,” the juvenile level to which over-use of labeling ultimately descends.

That is certainly the level to which some writers have descended when arguing, via letters to the editor, with another writer. It’s as though labeling their opponent in (what they believe is) a nasty way will assist their argument. It doesn’t.

We are all entitled to freedom of speech in this country. Let’s use it wisely, as effectively as we can, and maturely.

Chuck Hughes

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