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Between Kanye West and Rep. Joe Wilson, Americans are finally starting to get it: free speech is a right to act responsibly, not a license for stupidity.
Last week, America saw its president called a “liar” in the middle of one of the most important speeches that he has made yet, on the floor of Congress no less. That his accuser is a duly elected member of the House of Representatives made it almost embarrassing. Granted, it could always be worse: at least our politicians are still yelling and not throwing punches, but that’s hardly a sign that we have a civilized democracy.
The immaturity of one congressman was matched by the arrogance of one hip-hop superstar at the Video Music Awards only four days later, when Kanye West seized Taylor Swift’s microphone to tell the world that Beyoncé Knowles deserved Swift’s award, setting off the biggest Facebook status storm since Michael Jackson died.
People across this country didn’t necessarily shake their heads at Wilson and West because they disagreed with what each man said, or because we don’t like dissent from authorities, whether that authority is the President or MTV. There are a lot of critics of Obamacare, and perhaps even more Beyoncé fans who would have agreed with Wilson and West under different circumstances. And, let’s face it: Americans have a proud tradition of disagreeing with powerful politicians and establishment cultural critics.
No, the real reason Americans were dismayed at the jabberers this week is that we know, on some level, that free speech deserves better than insults, mockery and stealing other people’s moments of honor.
Unlike what some postmodernists mean when they talk about their love of “art for art’s sake,” people don’t love “free speech for free speech’s sake.” We love our freedom because we all want to be able to meet our responsibilities as citizens of a democratic republic. The reason that we so jealously defend the right to free speech is not because we believe that people like Wilson, West and the KKK should be able to shoot their mouths off whenever they want. We are just uncomfortable with the thought of being punished for freely expressing our beliefs in a civil manner, and we are uncomfortable about leaving the national political dialogue to a handful of politicians, pundits and special interests.
We want freedom because we want to be able to live up to our duties. As Lord Acton, the nineteenth century historian of freedom, put it: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” We all know that we oughtn’t interrupt each other and resort to name-calling. We all know that Wilson and West were not men enjoying their liberty; they were fools taking advantage of our cultural willingness to accept whatever comes out of people’s mouths.
Ultimately, nothing tangible will come of Wilson’s and West’s childish outbreaks.
If, however, these unfortunate incidents get Americans to think twice about why we have freedom, and about the differences between liberty and indulgence, then this can serve as a lesson about the purpose of rights.
We all know that there was something wrong about the two biggest news-grabbing gaffes over the last few days. Now, let’s take it to the next step and get back our ability to discriminate between what is morally justifiable as free speech and what is just dumb blather, what is freedom well-used and what is just superfluous.
Matt Cavedon is a senior at Harvard University.
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