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Life as Performance Art

   Someone asked if it bothered me that sometimes people don’t like what I have written for the newspaper.  My answer is always the same:  Not at all. I know I have never sat down at the keyboard with the intention of irritating or angering anyone. I avoid being a propagandist and write what I believe is true. As far as I am concerned, you have your point of view on a subject, mine is a bit different, and that is the way life should be. Sometimes we learn from each other, at least when the volume is low.
    Truth be told I am grateful for a little polite disagreement.  It means you have been reading what I wrote, and I am grateful and honored by that. I have always been fascinated by newspapers, and ever since I was a kid, wanted to work for one. The fact that you are reading my pieces means you have a hand in making a boyhood dream a reality. So, I mean it when I write that I am grateful when you disagree with me, although I’ll admit I like it a lot more when you agree with my ideas.
     I especially consider myself to be extremely fortunate that I work for Mike Wilcox and his papers and get to work with some truly brilliant writers who are articulate and dedicated.  Even though Mr. Wilcox and I disagree, we have long remained friends. That is important to me, also.
    As far as disagreeing is concerned, often it is a good thing.  It is an opportunity to learn from one another. It also means that at least in our little corner of the world the First Amendment affirmation of freedom of speech is still alive and active. I have always believed that this first article in the Bill of Rights is the most important of the ten.  If we ever lose our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, the rest of our culture and life will start tumbling down like a long line of dominoes.  Well before the last one falls, there won’t be much left of value here in the United States, and we’ll take the rest of the world down with us.
     Freedom of speech is a very fragile entity around the world. In some countries, journalists seem to have a target on their back. Last year, 67 journalists and reporters were killed.  That might not seem like a large number, but it is alarming because it is up by 50% over the year before.  Last year far more journalists were arrested than in previous years.  We don’t have an accurate count because in some countries where there is little or no freedom of speech, their arrests are not mentioned.  They simply disappear.
     Here, in our country on Memorial Day, and again on July Fourth and Veteran’s Day,  when we remember the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for our freedoms and this American way of life,  my thoughts will once again  be of gratitude for their battles to defend that First Amendment.
     Even though the murder of journalists is rare in this country, the concept of true Freedom of Speech remains fragile.  It is under attack from all sides.  There are government officials who are doing their best to slam the brakes on it. At least one state is trying to pass a bill that would require journalists to register with the government and fill out an annual report on how much money they make and who paid them.  That is a short hop, skip and jump into dangerous territory of control and censorship.
    Other states and local officials are attempting to decide what books may or may not be on a library shelf, or what information can or cannot be given to parents. Teachers who allow someone to read a book other do not like can end up in jail or saddled with a heavy fine.  In short, our freedom of speech is endangered once again. All it takes is one person or a small group, and that is it. The art or book or film is gone.
    At the same time there are various individuals and groups who are determined to silence the speech of anyone with whom they disagree, or anyone who holds ideas contrary to their own. It is sometimes called cancel culture and denying them a platform, or a place where they can speak. This is especially troubling when it happens in colleges and universities which have, until recently, traditionally been fortresses of open debate, discussion, and learning.  Students learned to agree to disagree. Now it seems, that the only acceptable speech is that which does not upset the “clients” as students were once called.  The logic seems to be that if the topic or speaker is not someone acceptable to them, it might harm the school’s fund-raising.  Meanwhile, students are afraid that if someone does not like their words, they might be denied future opportunities.
      When this is allowed to happen, we all suffer.  It is tyranny by a minority; sometimes it is tyranny by one at the expense of everyone else.  There is no discussion, no debate, just one demanding voice that stifles free speech and discussion.  Worse than that, this abrupt silence of a group or individual shatters any possible relationship that could bring about something good.  Long after the topic is forgotten, the animosity will be remembered.
     Censorship and the lack of free speech becomes an invisible wall a nation or group tries to wrap around itself.  That way, no one will know about ideas those in power fear the most.  That is exactly what Chin, the first emperor of China tried to do when he built the Great Wall. It wasn’t just to keep the barbarians out of his country, but to prevent his people from traveling abroad where they might learn something new and different.  Within a few years a once vibrant country began to collapse from a lack of intellectual stimulus.
    The Great Wall won’t do much good in today’s world where ideas are transmitted electronically, but there are those attempting to use new technology to stop the exchange of ideas.
    There is one, and only one word, that puts an end to this battle over freedom of speech:  Respect.  Respect that is earned; respect that is given.  It is a relatively short word, just seven letters or two syllables long, but it is all-encompassing.  It is absolute respect for free speech. No one said it better than Voltaire when he was debating with an opponent. He announced, “I disagree with everything you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  There is the gold standard.  We disagree, but we hold ourselves to a higher standard of defending the idea of free speech.
    It also means respect for the ideas and words of others. It is when we sincerely act on the principle that no matter how much we dislike another person or disagree with them, we truly need to hear what they have to say. It means that no matter how nutty an idea may seem, it deserves consideration.
    Throughout it all, we have a reasonable expectation that when we speak we will be heard and respected. That is something all of us want.  In turn, that means we have to respect others and carefully listen to what they are saying.

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