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Beyond Freedom Of Speech: The Responsibility To Hear And Be Heard

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Continuing the thoughts of my last post, Circling the Wagons,...

We all value freedom of speech - but wherein lies the true value? Is it just that we like the ability to give voice to our thoughts and value this personal opportunity? Or could there be a greater importance in that, through the freedom to express ourselves, we could possibly make a difference? The distinction in this latter view is that the value then is not just in being able to speak one's mind but, most significantly, in the ability to be heard to the furthest extent.

It is relatively easy for a speaker to gather together a large crowd of like-minded individuals to deliver a message with which the audience, already, agrees. And then, as the emotions reach a crescendo, all can declare that the point has been made and how obvious it is that the views expressed are clearly correct. But this position was already accepted before a word was uttered, for all in attendance were already 'on the bandwagon'. Nothing really has changed - except for the released emotions. This freedom of speech did not call upon us to think. It is basically talking to oneself.

There is no consideration or thought on how to express one's ideas to another who may not initially share them. The desire seems to be to simply voice one's viewpoint in the company of others who already share it -- and thereby feel a sense of camaraderie, correctness and, even, some power. The further belief seems to be that one can simply achieve one's objective by shouting louder and emoting more powerfully than an opponent. Reasoned thought is, in fact, the greater loser.

More and more, I have seen this 'bandwagon' approach to freedom of speech becoming the mainstream - on all sides of the issues. There is less and less consideration to ensure that one's thoughts will actually be heard to their fullest extent, especially by those who, at first, do not necessarily agree. Sustained and substantial ideas usually emerge from dialogue and the intelligent interaction of individuals who, at first, have different starting points. It is from their thoughtful interaction that a valued conclusion usually emerges. This can only exist, of course, if there is freedom of speech and one can express the fullness of an idea without a fear of intimidation. It also can only exist, though, if the one expressing the idea also wants it to be fully heard by all and therefore considers how to express the idea so that this actual result will occur. There is a sad problem in our present world in that the identification of this necessity in freedom of speech is not obviously recognized. Too many do not truly care about being heard - that is: expressing themselves so that there will be the maximum opportunity for being heard by all.

The corollary of this, of course, is the recognition that one should also listen, hear. As people commit more and more to dogmatic positions on issues, they not only believe that freedom of speech gives them the right to say anything they want as they want. They also seem to believe that they have no responsibility to listen. It is a toxic cycle: we don't believe that we have to speak so that we are heard for we also wouldn't be listening to another anyway. My speech is only for those who would perforce agree with me anyway - and so I don't have to really consider, in depth, what I am saying - for I don't have to expect that maybe someone who, at first, may disagree could be listening and I should consider what to say to such a person. Why should I? I wouldn't be listening to the other in such circumstances.

It is shameful what has happened to the preciousness of freedom of speech. It has become only a right for like-minded individuals to esteem themselves as they all declare what they all already accept. To be challenged, to consider beyond the emotion, to actually think -- please don't confuse me with the facts. Freedom of speech only really reaches its zenith when it is accompanied by a responsibility in the speaker to try and express himself/herself so that an idea will be heard by the greatest number of people and with the recognition in the listeners of a responsibility to hear. We, otherwise, just have shouting shoot-outs or slippery quips. Freedom of speech should initiate the most constructive dialogue because people can speak in fullness and people can hear in fullness with the result being the constructive interaction of ideas. In our world, today, woefully, on all sides, this is missing.