Why we gotta have freedom of expression.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 October 2015

And in this age, we have Blog Action Days.

I’m participating in the Blog Action Day thingy, an attempt to get bloggers and their readers to focus on a particular worthy issue. This year it’s #RaiseYourVoice, an attempt to speak up on behalf of journalists, photographers, bloggers, writers, and pretty much everyone who’s not allowed to speak up for themselves.

In the United States, freedom of expression is pretty much the content of our Constitution’s first amendment: A guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, the press, and to petition government.

Among us Christians, freedom of expression is a tricky thing. Because not every Christian is agreed we have freedom of expression. Or should have.

I know many a Christian who’s outraged, outraged, by some of the stuff on television. It’s just filthy. So, they tell anyone who’ll listen, they got rid of their TV. They threw it right out. They don’t watch it anymore.

…Well okay, they watch stuff on the Blu-ray player. And off Netflix. And sometimes they’ll reconnect the cable for sports. And they’ve downloaded every episode of Little House on the Prarie from Amazon, but watching old TV doesn’t count as “watching TV,” does it?…

Anyway. Some things, many of us Christians insist, shouldn’t be so freely expressed. “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth” Ep 4.29 and “Touch not the unclean thing” 2Co 6.17 and all that. We practice self-control, or at least we fake it really well. So others should practice self-control. And if they can’t, maybe we oughta pass some laws. Or, if doing so bothers our sense of libertarianism, we can just do as we usually do: Boycott them, boycott their sponsors, boycott their business partners, shout ’em down, hack their websites, slander ’em widely, and otherwise try to ruin them. ’Cause it’s our duty as good citizens and devout Christians.

But when other people do all that stuff to us—why, we’re being persecuted.

It’s a blind spot. A big black hole of a blind spot, where the inconsistency falls in and gets squashed into a singularity: “Those are entirely different things. They’re promoting evil. We’re promoting Jesus. (And our politics, which are Jesus-approved, so they’re part of the package.) Evil needs to be fought. And it’s evil to fight us, ’cause we’re on God’s side.”

So when I talk to my fellow Christians about freedom of expression, they’re all for it—for us. Not so much for others. If it’s a secular cause, or it’s not their kind of Christian, count them out. You might be able to convince them when the need is dire, but their support entirely depends on the situational ethics: “I know those refugees are getting rounded up and shot, but… you know some of them are Muslims, right? Muslims! What if one of them’s a terrorist? I can’t be a party to that.” Some of ’em are so afraid the devil might dupe ’em into backing the wrong person, they’ll avoid any good deeds altogether. Let God sort ’em out.

Spread free expression. Not just democracy.

I support freedom of expression across the board. Not just for myself and my fellow Christians, and you know I’ll totally take advantage of that freedom so long that I have it. But for everybody. Freedom of expression needs to be for everybody. For people I agree with, and even for people I profoundly don’t agree with. Yep, them too.

No, I don’t believe this because I was indoctrinated to think so in journalism school. I realize conspiracy theorists will never believe me, but y’see, the reason people go to journalism school (other than to meet hot journalism babes) is because they already believe this. No indoctrination necessary.

Yeah, many of us will totally sell out this view to work in certain jobs. One of my editors, fr’instance, killed a story of mine because he knew the publisher would kill him if he ran it. (No, not literally. Still the United States, y’know. Usually editors don’t get killed for losing advertisers. Just fired. Again, not literally.) Freedom of expression isn’t always gonna win when it stands up against the almighty dollar. I knew this going into the job. I also knew this when I put a fake name on the article and submitted it to our competitor, who gleefully ran it. The nice thing about freedom of expression is that when the state guarantees it, there are always ways of getting your message out.

When the state guarantees no such thing, the only way to get your message out is by force.

That is, when you can get force. The thing about states, especially oppressive ones, is they tend to be powerful enough to squash opposition. They’ve had years to get ready to stamp out dissidents, and years of practice. We Americans get cocky, and think, “Our little band of patriots once defeated the mighty British Empire, so when we put our minds to it we can defeat anyone.” We ignore the fact we had significant help from the French Empire. Resistance ain’t easy. It helps to have a kingdom at your back.

The United States makes a big deal about spreading democracy to other nations, particularly nations which aren’t currently run that way. We want ’em to be free. But we don’t always remember that democracy isn’t freedom. Freedom is freedom. Democracy means the people vote in their leaders. Doesn’t always mean they freely vote in their leaders. Iran’s a democracy. But every leader gets pre-approved by the Guardian Council, 12 experts on Islam who disqualify candidates if they’re not Muslim enough for them. If you wanna critique the Guardian Council, you can’t. Not without an armed uprising.

When people aren’t free, can’t say what they want, or just plain can’t get heard, they tend to do something drastic. If we can’t freely express ourselves, we tend to violently express ourselves. Or we try the passive resistance thing and get shot or crucified. People die. They shouldn’t have to, but if you don’t have liberty, you usually wind up with death.

In the United States, our Constitution provides us with peaceful expression. It doesn’t always work, but the great majority of the time it totally does. We have the right to petition our governments; we have the ability to remove officeholders without violent overthrow. When an unpopular president decisively loses an election, his political foes won’t put his head on a pointed stick and parade it through the streets, much as they might secretly want to. Instead he quietly goes home to Georgia and builds houses for the homeless and teaches Sunday school.

When government has to listen to its citizens, there’s no need for bloody revolution. But when it doesn’t and won’t… well, it’d better fear the people. Time will come when they’ll stand no more. I’m not saying revolutions should happen, but history has demonstrated they always do. May take generations before they see and seize their opportunity, but they always do. At some point, someone’s gonna shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” A thousand times out of 1,001, that person will likely be silenced by fellow citizens who don’t wanna make waves. But all it takes is that one time to spark the powderkeg.

Freedom of expression, to keep playing with that metaphor, scatters the powder. If you can be heard, if you can get out your message, you don’t have to resort to chaos and bloodshed. Yeah, there are always lunatics who will do so anyway. In a free society, the public won’t embrace them for their bravery, but reject them for their madness: You didn’t have to do that. You have a voice.

Sure, let’s spread democracy. But more importantly, let’s spread freedom. When the Soviet Union, arguably the strongest nation in the world at the time, granted free speech to its citizens, it fell within a decade.

But what about goodness and decency and fighting heresy?

A lot of my patriotic American Christian friends agree with spreading freedom to faraway lands. But they haven’t thought through what that means, so they just assume we mean democracy. ’Cause we have democracy. But freedom of expression? Problematic. Perverts and flag-burners and heretics keep taking advantage of it, y’know.

These Christians have to be reminded, if not taught: Freedom of expression is a form of grace. Remember grace? That attitude of God which he saves us by? He could strike humanity down like a kid at a Chuck E. Cheese playing Whac-a-Mole after 12 packages of Fun Dip. Instead he patiently works on us, so he can save as many of us as he can. 2Pe 3.9 And just as we experience God’s grace, we need to spread the experience. Yeah, even when they don’t deserve it. ’Cause if they deserved it, it’d be earned, not grace.

Grace, as I said in my article on it, offends people ’cause they’d much rather people get “justice,” as they define it: People should get what’s coming to them. Not freebies. We had to work for what we got; so should they. We fought for freedom; they shouldn’t get to take advantage of it. Especially get away with all sorts of foul, nasty things.

After St. Paul wrote about a few such people, he then wrote this:

Romans 1.28 - 2.4 KWL
28 Since they never tried to learn from God,
God handed them off to their untried minds, to do the unthinkable.
29 To fill themselves with every sort of wrong-headedness, dishonesty, evil gain.
Full of envy. Murder. Fighting. Deceit. Maliciousness. Gossip. 30 Slanderers. God-haters.
Full of themselves. Arrogant. Boastful. Inventors of new evils. Dismissive of their parents.
31 Don’t think. Don’t keep their promises. Void of compassion. Void of mercy.
32 Knowing God’s command—that people who do such things deserve death—
yet not only do they do them, but approve of their doing.
1 Meaning all you people who judge have no defense either:
Whenever you judge another, you condemn yourself: You judges do the same things!
2 We’ve always known God’s judgment is valid about those who do such things.
3 Consider that, you people who judge, yet do the same things:
Why will you get to escape God’s judgment?
4 Or is his abundant kindness, his holding back, his patience, for nothing?
God’s kindness gets you to repent. Didn’t you know this?

Okay, they’re sinners. And so are we. We just have the volume turned down a bit lower. Or we repented a long time ago, and figured we must’ve cleaned up enough to pass for righteous. It’s not fooling God though.

But why do we get grace, and they don’t? Why do we get God’s kindness, and they don’t? Oh wait… they do. Mt 5.45 Everybody gets grace. He 2.9 It’s just that not everybody wants, or gets, heaven.

Will they get heaven? That depends. Did we show it to them? Or did we jail them for expressing themselves in all the ways we don’t like? Instead of inspiring them to repent, did we just make ’em think, same as usual, “Those repressed Christians are ruining this country for everyone with half a creative spark in their head”? Did we show them Jesus is valid through our love, or through our clever but devastating arguments? Did we act in the fruit of the Spirit, or did we strike ’em down like that kid playing Whac-a-Mole?

Spread grace. And the simplest way to do so is to extend freedom wherever we can. Especially to those in oppressive countries, who won’t let their citizens vote, who won’t let their people speak, who won’t let their reporters reveal the truth, who won’t let the people of their minority religions live. Speak up for them. Shine your light.