Saturday, May 03, 2008

Things that Matter: Free Speech

As many of you have pointed out in recent days, I am a liar and completely lack integrity. Your point is well taken. I had great intentions to muse, if you will, Wednesday night. I try to keep my promises. However, I was in a crappy hotel in Columbus, OH that barely had hot water. Internet connection was out of the question. Then I spent all of Thursday driving to Baltimore and have just finished a whirlwind weekend of SuperStart. I have been tired. No excuse, I know. Even still, I will keep my promise and kick off my series on things that matter.

This is a few days late but still important. Now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s get down to business.

The summer before my 9th grade year I was required to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for freshman English. I remember hating the idea of doing homework over the summer and put it off until the last possible moment. August rolled around and I realized that the book was still sitting in the same place on my dresser that it occupied in May. Had there not been a test on the first day I might not have picked it up at all.

“Mockingbird” is perfect example of why required reading is a good thing. There is no way I would have picked Harper Lee’s book off of the shelf when I was 14 years old. Good things happen when people smarter than us force us to read material we are not wise enough to read on our own.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I really liked the book. Beyond the story itself, it sparked great conversation in the classroom that fall on race, prejudice, and reminded a group of Oklahoma teenagers what can happen when we stand up for what is right.

Four years later I was deeply disturbed to learn that it had been removed from the required reading list. Apparently a small minority grew upset with the language and subject matter in the book. This was common. I grew up in a racial diverse town, for as small as it is. Nearly 40% of the high school I attended was African-American. Some people were offended.

Now, I don’t think it is right to question what offends people. It is arrogant to tell someone that they are being too sensitive or that they shouldn’t get worked up over an issue. It is also irresponsible when you then consider how you would feel if it was an issue that bothered you. If Native Americans are offended by a college mascot, change it. That is the right thing to do. However, ignoring issues and stealing the opportunity from people to learn from dialog is a terrible sin. This is what was happening in my hometown. This was the real problem.

You can call this my first case with freedom of speech. I got a little worked up over this. For the next few months I wrote the paper and talked with some of the teachers in the district. In the end, I never stood on a picket line but like to think I was one of many voices that helped “To Kill a Mockingbird” find its way back to the shelves.

I am still a firm believer in freedom of speech. It is one of the things that make our country great. The very fact that I can log onto the web and say whatever I want is proof of this. All ideas are not created equal but they should all be shared and expressed. I have found that even I if completely disagree with someone, even if they offend me, something can still be learned from their perspective.

So I hate it when people censure books with a proven track record, whether it is “Mockingbird” or even “Harry Potter”. We shouldn’t be so scared of new ideas or fresh concepts. So you don’t believe something? Read it anyway. Figure out where they are coming from. Don’t let new views scare you. Any belief that causes you to worry that a new idea will cause it to crumble it is not a belief worth holding onto.

Freedom of speech allows our views to be flexible gives our perspectives room to continually evolve. From a Christian perspective, all truth is God’s truth. So whatever advances are made in science, for example, I don’t worry that Genesis will be proven false. By the way, I believe the earth is older than 6,000 years.

At this moment anyway.

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