Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Bigot and the Troll: All Fist and No Nose

I once took a course with an older gentleman named Mike, who I once heard say:
“ The freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins.”

I don’t know whether he made it up or stole it from someone, but it has always stuck with me. As a man whose own nose begins rather sooner than most, I may be biased, but I always thought it as good a demarcation between rights and responsibilities (remember them?) as any. Freedom is not just the unfettered ability to do as one wants; it is accompanied by the responsibility to Do No Harm.

            At first it would seem a no-brainer; I have heard very few people openly take issue with it. Where it gets tricky is when the harm done is not of a physical or strictly quantifiable nature; when it’s psychological or emotional. Then, we run up against freedom of expression, and the uncomfortable realization that it is the inalienable right of some individuals to visit certain forms of harm on others.

            We all know of the despicable Terry Jones, the loathsome Westborough Baptist Church, and the scum sucking internet trolls continuously poking a sharp stick into the eyes of Amanda Todd’s parents via their truly vile postings on Youtube and Facebook.  These are not harmless actions. In each case, pain is the intended result. Each is a calculated exercise to maximize anguish in other people, for reasons known only to the perpetrators. They have the right to do this; they must have, if freedom of expression is to mean anything.
            But what wretched, rancid uses they’ve made of their freedom!

            There are people all over the world fighting for freedom to criticize their governments, to practice their religion or not to practice their lack thereof, to express ideas and express truths. They are being jailed, beaten, tortured, occasionally killed. Our own precious open society was not born in a vacuum but sprang from the blood of many veterans (and I don’t just mean soldiers).

            How sad then that for so many, this much sought and hard won right means nothing more than immunity from the rules of basic civility and common decency. These people do not follow the principle of doing no harm; they consider other people’s noses to be intolerable restraints on their fists.

            They have their rights, and we mustn’t tread on them. But what they fail to realize (and what we too often forget) is that it is also our right to call them on their bullshit.

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