Sometimes Free Speech Hurts

by Denny Russell

The Antioch Voice will always be a diverse publication. We would do Antioch a disservice if we offered anything less than the heart and soul of her members. At the same time, the Voice staff is guided by First Amendment principles, so we understand that our freedoms have certain reasonable limitations. We exist to investigate truths and to create perspectives for our readers. Libel and slander have no place in our pages.

With that said, our editorial considerations end with doing no harm. We’re Antiochians, remember. We love to push boundaries and challenge the status quo whenever we can. Because we ALSO recognize the difference between inflicting harm in society and eliciting uncomfortable reactions in our readers. 

Our recent Betty Page advertisement is a perfect example of this. We decided to use bondage imagery as a visual double entendre, asking students to “submit” to The Antioch Voice. And while there was no sexual penetration, no nudity, nothing that hasn’t been used to sell cheeseburgers on commercials, the imagery still created a stir on campus.

We met with a student complaining of an offense to discuss the matter. She appealed to our sense of decency when advertising in public. [See, “University Decorum,” June 5, 2012.] But our conversation went deeper than issues of decorum, into the WHY of the matter. Why do people react harshly to certain images? She reminded us that some Antioch students had histories of violence or abuse to contend with, many she knew personally from classes. Those students probably wouldn’t appreciate images of bondage displayed in the halls.

The student was very brave to open her heart on this issue, and for that, we are grateful. We hope that we provided her a safe space to explore her offenses, and a proper venue to express her point of view. And yes, personal histories do contribute to how people view the world. However, the offended responses to our ad were personal and thus not grounds to remove it.

To be fair, it’s not easy to be mindful of something “getting personal” to us in the moment. When we’re offended by an image, we experience the anger immediately and internally. Those feelings become the focus of our attention, fueling our thoughts and behavior. We don’t notice our minds supplying additional values and meaning to HOW we see the image. Our brains are too busy on fire from negative energy, self-doubt, nagging thoughts, and memories triggered by the offending picture.

Unfortunately, the natural human instinct is to project our internal discomfort outward, outside of our selves and onto that damn thing! Get it out of here!! What the hell, man?! Why? Because it’s hard for us to find value in uncomfortable feelings. Or maybe it’s just easier to find the person or thing causing our discomfort and shut them down. Silence them. Remove evidence of their existence.

But we must remember that there are as many ways to be personally offended in this society as there are people. That’s why our Freedom of Speech is so important. Our very human tendency to stifle what we find uncomfortable REQUIRES us to safeguard our forms of expression against personal grievances.

That doesn’t mean the offended parties should go suck a bug and get over it. Not at all. Personal expression is most useful to the person doing the expressing. And since he or she expressed personal emotional content associated with topic X, it’s the perfect time to examine all that angry, fearful, sad, guilty stuff. See where it leads.

We know from history that our Freedom of Speech helped pave the way for minorities and disenfranchised people in this country. Free speech forced people in the majority – people with the power to stifle what they found uncomfortable – to confront their prejudices and ignorance. Not tuck those feelings away to be dealt with later.

To this day, our Freedom of Speech provides us opportunities to explore our selves. And we keep ignoring them, refusing to take the harder road of personal reflection and growth. But for those who do, The Antioch Voice wants to hear from you. And that includes people who do not agree with The Antioch Voice.

For more of Denny’s writing, visit: http://w0rdbomb.blogspot.com/

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