Responsibility of Speech

One of the most important debates taking place in our culture today is about the 1st amendment. The so-called Freedom of Speech is being reconfigured and reconsidered in a digital context. What exactly does our constitution protect? When does speech become criminal? The power of speech creates its limits. A responsible use of speech is the only way to protect and preserve the first amendment rights pertaining to speech, but what exactly does that mean?

Comedians have been caught up in the center of this debate and for good reason. They work at the extreme edge of the acceptable. Comedians like Andrew Schulz with the Flagrant Podcast are self-consciously pushing back against Woke Culture’s tendency to censor honest opinion. Luis J. Gomez, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dave Smith all push way past the accepted norms for speech and they live or die based upon their ability to use offensive speech responsibly. Is this simply a niche in comedy or is this the battlegrounds of our free speech debate?

If we think about the Freedom of Speech along the lines of our consideration of the Right to Bear Arms, then the idea of the responsibility of speech becomes clearer. The right to own a handgun doesn’t give you the right to rob a liquor store. It gives you the power to, but not the right. You have the right to bear the arms but using them in a violent way requires very specific conditions. The same is true with speech. For example, if someone were to use their words to get someone else to do something illegal, then they are also breaking the law and are subject to the penalties. Charles Manson didn’t use his hands to murder; he used his words.

The classic example is that you can’t yell “bomb” in a crowded airport. Other examples include sexual harassment, terroristic threats, or hate crimes. Racially motivated harassment is not protected speech. Inciting violence of any kind is not protected speech. Yes, you can buy and own a .45 revolver but if you shoot your neighbor’s dog, you are going to jail. There are so many examples of speech that are not allowed, it is curious what exactly the first amendment protects. Or what is it supposed to protect? It is the entire basis for dissent. It is supposed to protect a responsible critique of the government, but not a call to arms to show up and murder the congress.

The context of comedy is supposed to provide an outlet for the responsible expression of unacceptable ideas and beliefs. Just like when we watch a play or a movie and we suspend our disbelief and go along with the make believe of the show for the sake of entertainment, when we consume comedic content, we do so with the understanding that it is not to be taken seriously. Back to the analogy with guns, comedians are performing trick shots at a shooting range. If the comic respects the context of comedy, they remain responsible with their speech.

Probably the riskiest thing that comics do is roast people. Think of a circus act where an archer shoots an apple off the top of someone’s head, or they throw knives at someone standing against a wooden wall getting as close to flesh as possible. This is also target practice. The intention is not to hurt the person, but to come as close as possible. Because the chance of hurting the person is so high, the tension it creates is also elevated and when the person leaves the scene unscathed the sigh of relief is that much more fulfilling. This kind of act takes us on a thrill ride of almost experiencing something violent happen, but because that was never the intention, and the weapons are used with such precision and skill there is not a drop of blood shed.

This type of act also requires active participation between both the knife thrower and the person standing against the wall. If that person moves unexpectedly, the act could end disastrously. Good performers will play with this by pretending as though the person is uncomfortable standing there and they will move around, but in a choreographed way. Both actors must be perfectly attuned. This happens all the time in comedy when people successfully roast each other, and it is funny.

I agree with comics who are fighting to protect the freedom of speech within the context of comedy. This also means having a conversation about how the whole thing works. You know, like letting people know that they shouldn’t try this knife throwing act at home. Unskillful comics can hurt people inadvertently. You see it all the time on Twitter. Without the context of an agreement that we are trying to entertain the public a joke can easily become an attack. We need to be smart enough to protect the sphere of comedy as a place where target practice is happening. It is a danger zone, and you should proceed accordingly.

Words are powerful in a different way than weapons. Language can influence people to do all kinds of different things, including to act violently. Comedy is a risky business. Andrew Schulz compared it to bullfighting. It requires skill and steadiness of nerves to be able to perform comedic material. It is a highwire act, a slackline adventure in speech, and we don’t want to witness a tragedy go down. We go to comedy for many reasons, but is it to witness people being hurt? 

Responsible speech is the way to increase our ability to explore risky subjects. Through the discipline of our considerations, we will build a trust that will allow people to relax and to trust both our intention and our skillfulness to follow through. I don’t have the answers, but I am pursuing the questions about free speech and its limits and how to responsibly engage in this debate. 

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