Americans often marvel at strict laws in countries such as Singapore, where chewing gum, littering, jaywalking – and even failing to flush the toilet – are punishable with fines, prison time and in some instances, caning. We cherish our greater freedoms, resist laws and regulations and disparage any legislation that smacks of a “nanny state.” We believe we should be left alone to self-regulate, and proudly defend the many rights and freedoms afforded to us by our Constitution.
In the United States, things that are annoying, bad, stupid or unethical are left to self- and community-based regulation. Lawyers and doctors can be disciplined by professional organizations for violating rules of conduct and ethical standards. Students who plagiarize get bad grades or kicked out. Hundreds of thousands of norms are socially enforced — if you are mean, rude, gross or otherwise unpleasant to be around, isolation is your punishment, not jail time.
In short, in the United States, the line between right and wrong is not the same as the line between legal and illegal. A huge category of “stuff you shouldn’t do or say” is perfectly legal — it just isn’t nice, advisable, smart, wise, accurate, helpful, fair, valued or productive. We rely on each individual and on groups and communities, to self-regulate. That’s the other part of the “rights and freedoms” equation: responsibility.
You have a constitutionally protected right to be a jerk – or worse. You have a right to say things that are racist, sexist, bigoted and homophobic, mean, nasty, vile, offensive, stupid, false, cruel, despicable and ignorant. You even have the right, in many instances, to lie and cheat, to dodge your responsibilities, and to say and do hurtful things to individuals and groups — so long as you do not engage in physical acts of violence.
But the right to be a jerk does not confer an obligation. On the contrary, we depend on citizens, groups and associations to put the brakes on any impulse to engage in bad behaviors, and to withhold from making hurtful, biased and ignorant statements. As citizens who enjoy great freedoms, it is our responsibility to curb our mouths and actions. Of course, we also have the right to be affirmatively good people; to be ethical, thoughtful, truth-seeking, productive and kind.
Which brings me to the so-called “Free Speech Week” which may or may not have been organized by a student organization fronting for the foul-mouthed Milo Yiannopoulos and friends. Invoking the right to say things that are mean, racists, hurtful, ignorant and divisive does not elevate, justify or in any way rehabilitate the speech, or the speaker. In fact, those who trade in such speech, or invite or support it, are proving themselves incapable of self-regulation in the realm of moral and ethical behavior. Yes, you have the right to splash around in the toilet bowl of speech, and leave it unflushed. But you don’t have an obligation, and you gain no dignity, validity or credence, by choosing to do so.