Sticks and stones


A long-time acquaintance who has become a successful attorney and a law professor also fancies himself a blogger and commentator. His strident political and religious ideologies are often incongruent with mine, yet I always find his perspective to be insightful and thoughtful.

While his posts often include hand-grenade-like prose designed to shock and offend, or delight, the reader, we regularly discuss his field of expertise: the emerging areas of hate crimes and hate speech. One such post led me to ask if his phrase “tea bagger crackers” (presumably in reference to Caucasian Americans who support a movement towards a more restrained federal government) in itself constituted hate speech.

His response postulated that hate speech would only occur if he had specifically suggested that the individuals to which he referred should be summarily executed or otherwise harmed. And, he continued, that calling people names is a perfectly suited application for our constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Could this be a suitable definition? And, would such language coming from a less erudite and well-educated individual be tolerated – especially if it were directed towards a different subclass of our culture? While I tend to concur with this take on freedom, I doubt that many would apply such a freedom universally.

Yet, it is a tragedy that so many have surrendered freedom of speech so as to avoid retribution from one or another lofty (and self-appointed) arbiter of who gets to say which words. Perhaps more direct (even if more inflammatory) language would lead to enhanced public discourse. But while in central Indiana promoting his Civility Tour, National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach urged us to seek common ground and avoid rhetorical incendiaries. Sticks and stones, they say, may break bones, but, names are great tools to frame and win political advantage. A broken arm might be better!


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