As a proud American and veteran journalist, I deplore censorship and cancel culture, both of which seek to muzzle what some or most would consider provocative speech and, in my belief, undermine a free press that Americans take for granted.
In other parts of the world, our home-grown reactions of outrage would translate into horrific scenarios where punishment never fits the so-called crime of dissent. Enough of my fellow journalists and authors have found through the years that being a First Amendment crusader will land them in jail or a body bag. Case in point: Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident and columnist for The Washington Post who was brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. And look at what just happened to Salman Rushdie, who survived a knife attack decades after the Iranian government made him a marked man.
I think it’s downright un-American to demonize people for expressing an opinion that’s different from yours or banish them for transgressions stemming from a slip of the tongue or outdated beliefs from years ago that now seem tone deaf. We all have a right to grow, evolve as individuals, and apologize for words that hurt or offend others but also defend our new positions. Beyond that, our culture celebrates second chances and so does organized religion. No one should be silenced along their own path to salvation.
Having said all that, I recently encountered a very uncomfortable situation where my diehard belief in freedom of expression clashed with the ugliness of hate speech. I was all set to interview someone with whom I disagreed about an issue that has divided some communities in the rural Western U.S. In my humble opinion, the subject that was about to be discussed cast a spotlight on fringe thinkers who are deeply suspicious of the federal government’s authority and believe they’re above the law.
For some journalists, that may have been enough to not consider giving someone a platform or forum to espouse nonsensical beliefs that disregard the rule of law. But for me, I relished the chance to have a spirited debate – that is, until one of my colleagues said he would actually quit if we went ahead with the planned interview, accusing the subject of perpetuating hate speech. This obviously grabbed my attention.
At first, I thought he was simply walking into wokeness, which didn’t sit well with me. Not exactly, as it turned out, which got me thinking about how the difference between freedom of expression and hate speech can be a fine line. He emailed me links to several articles that revealed more than meets the eye about the subject of my interview, who was celebrated as an American patriot in a new book about his life. I was supposed to chat with the author of that book.
The initial links that were provided didn’t reveal what I’d consider any deal-breaking material, and I easily could have gone through with the interview. But I was curious to know more. So I did additional research and much to my horror discovered abhorrent, bigoted comments that to me disqualified this individual from ever being considered a hero, much less viewed in a positive light. I kept reading and noticed other shocking statements made by his son about my own heritage, convincing me that hate no doubt was passed along to the next generation in that family.
This made me terribly uneasy because I had never faced this moral dilemma before in a career spanning nearly 40 years, the lion’s share of it in trade journalism, which is light years removed from muckraking or exposés. On the one hand, it felt like I had betrayed my beloved profession, hardline stance against censorship and commitment to the exchange of free ideas in the open marketplace of a free press. But I also was sickened to read such hateful views.
Freedom of expression and hate speech can be separated by a fine line considering how subjective they can be. One man’s opinion may be another man’s bane of existence. Case in point: Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials, which the trans community has seriously decried and attempted to cancel from our culture. To his supporters, it’s actually a love letter to a transgender individual who the comedian befriended and respected.
I learned right from wrong at an early age and grip that moral compass closely to this day. Did I want to be complicit in convincing viewers who might have been on the fence about the subject of my planned interview that he deserved to be called a patriot? Did I want to be on the wrong side of history? Not a chance. So I cancelled the interview, informed my colleagues and moved on from this uncomfortable episode. The author I was supposed to chat with then lamented the sorry state of journalism upon being informed of our decision. I wished him well.
Some choices in life aren’t exactly easy ones to make and require careful ethical considerations, especially when you’re in a business that must balance the need to inform with prudence. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is a realization that with freedom comes great responsibility, which makes folks like me better stewards of information.
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