Free and Cheesy

Jewish Light Editorial

Who are we as a nation? Current events are begging us to answer that question.

Are we a nation that can embrace our traditional insistence on freedom of speech and expression, or are we going to succumb to those who would suppress it?

Are we a nation that can embrace our traditional openness to those suffering oppression in other parts of the world, or will we succumb to those who represent our most vile xenophobic tendencies?

Challenges are pounding us, and we must decide. The toughest times require the toughest resolve, so we will find out what we are made of.

Free speech is being attacked, mostly from the left. Meanwhile,   the right, utilizing the right of free speech broadly and in many cases offensively, is lashing out against accepting Syrian refugees, Muslims in particular.

Both the advocacy for restrictions on free speech, and the notions of religious tests and a blanket ban on refugees, violate the principles of an open and just society. 

Many, but not all, of the recent efforts to suppress speech come from those who would advocate to “protect” minorities from offensive speech, from so-called microaggressions. Mechanisms like trigger warnings and outright bans on certain subjects or means of discussing them are being floated both on college campuses and beyond. These restrictions have the potential for stifling all sorts of speech based on a listener’s subjective perspective of being hurt or offended.

The potential for this type of repression taking hold seems to be supported by a recent Pew Research study that indicates millennials, to a much greater extent than their elders, would support governmental limits on speech that is offensive to minorities, whatever that means. 

There’s tons of trouble with this approach, even for those who might have the best of intentions in advocating for it. If “content police” get to pick and choose who might be offended, then we’ll soon be in a place in which some kinds of speech are protected and others are not.

That’s hardly the stuff that an open society is made of.

And consider, in particular, the issues as they pertain to Jews. Supporters of Israel, many if not most of whom are Jews, have been shouted down, even to the point of exclusion, by BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) adherents on campuses throughout America. Jews, who represent 2 percent of the nation’s population, a small minority indeed. What if the content police were to limit public support of Israel, claiming that it undermines the plight of Palestinians? That would be the worst kind of suppression imaginable.

The greatest irony of those who advocate for speech suppression is that it is our insistence on free and open speech that has led to virtually every social justice success this country has seen. We have to hold firm in demanding open discourse no matter how offensive.

And speaking of offensive speech: On the other end of the political spectrum lies the refugee question. Donald Trump may be the most outspoken presidential candidate on the issue, but he’s hardly alone. Candidates on the right are trying to outdo each other in advocating to impose the most offensive limitations. 

Some have suggested barring Muslim refugees, but not Christian ones, a religious test anathema to our way of life and in conflict with our Constitution. Others have called for preventing any displaced Syrians from entering, which shows an utter lack of understanding of the challenges families must face to pass through the arduous entrance requirements that the federal government has in place. 

This system of vetting, while hardly perfect, has worked extremely well, balancing our tradition of welcoming political refugees against the security needs of the nation.

And then there was the seemingly short-lived suggestion by Trump that all Muslims, even those who are American citizens, should be placed on a registry and carry documentation, recalling the horrors of Jews in Nazi Germany and Japanese shuttled to internment camps here. 

That’s hardly the stuff that a just society is made of.

We hold our nose when the drastic measures offered on the refugee issue are put forward. Yet we acknowledge the right to be both offensive and misguided. It is the presence of speech, not the absence of it, that allows us to advance dialogue, no matter how messy.

It is unfortunate that more people don’t exercise personal responsibility before speaking, particularly in this era of instant and universal communication. But no matter the scale or the times, it has always been thus. And if we limit what some consider offensive, we would soon find ourselves in a society in which the content police are watching and potentially restricting our every word.

That’s the antithesis of what has made America great and unique among the nations. So whether the speech is offensive to minorities in this nation or to refugees not yet here, it is our duty not only to grimace and bear it, but to speak out ourselves for what we believe.