Tasteless Expressions of Free Speech Have Consequences
By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 12/02/07
Our actions, words, and expressions can sometimes spawn unintended consequences. Even when acting within legal parameters of free speech, what we say and do can harm our causes and cast aspersions on our country. Such was the case last month in China.
Reminiscent of the fall-out from Natalie Maines infamous statement at a London concert of the Dixie Chicks when she declared their disapprobation of the current President hailing from Texas, the U.S. team of women at the World Bridge Championships in Shanghai displayed a sign declaring “We didn’t vote for George Bush.”
The gesture, although legal free speech, was tasteless, even though, according to the women, it was impromptu, scribbled on the back of a menu that was displayed prominently at an awards dinner. As a result of their actions, the non-profit United States Bridge Federation is facing the possibility of corporate sponsors withdrawing their support, and the team members facing sanctions, including suspended membership in the Federation and a ban from national and international competition.
Jan Martel, president of the Bridge Federation, said afterward, “This isn’t a free-speech issue. There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.” The team members have contested that claim saying their speech cannot be censored and they are free to express themselves publicly, even overseas. Even though free speech is a right for Americans to enjoy, tasteless expressions still have their pejorative consequences.
The Federation is right to impose sanctions since the team’s actions reflect badly on the team, the Federation, the corporate sponsors, and the sponsoring country.
Team members have been stunned by global reaction to what they saw as a spontaneous gesture, or as Gail Greenberg, team captain, put it, “A moment of levity.”
It should be obvious to that even humorously intended gestures and expressions can have harmful consequences. Although intended as mirth, the act illustrated how even lightheartedness can be as classless as expressions made in seriousness.
As tasteless as this act was, it comes nowhere near the defamatory and insulting actions and comments of former President Jimmy Carter. Over the past few years he has lauded totalitarian leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Yugoslav strongman Josef Tito, and former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. He’s also sided with former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il against U.S. foreign policy. He has regaled our current President abroad by calling him “America’s worst president,” and claimed that the U.S. was more problem than solution around the world. Indeed, his global efforts denouncing the United States and undermining U.S. foreign policy, even abroad, has earned him the moniker “The Worst Ex-President.” So much for the notion that “politics ends at the water’s edge.”
Carter’s charges against the current President are even more inscrutable in light of the fact that Carter's abandonment of the shah in 1977-78 helped lead to the Islamic revolution (and the murder or imprisonment of many of the Iranian leftists who had supported overthrowing the shah), the emboldening of the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and the rise of radical Islam worldwide.
Certainly the actions of our former President have done much more harm to American interests and our perception around the world than a group of outspoken bridge players. Yet inexplicably he continues to spew his anti-American venom around the globe, and is hailed by some as a bold outspoken critic of American foreign policy.
Another example of bad taste was on display at a political rally in South Carolina last week when a woman asked presidential candidate John McCain, “How do we beat the b****?” The reaction of those in attendance left little doubt as to who the McCain supporter was referring to, as laughter filled the room, and McCain responded uncomfortably, “May I give the translation?” followed by, “That’s a good question,” Although criticized by political pundits for not denouncing the questioner, McCain went on to explain how he “respects Senator Clinton.” However incorrectly Senator McCain handled the question, the error clearly lies with the questioner. Although just a private citizen, she seems to be as oblivious to the fact that such language cheapens and degrades the public political discourse as former President Carter and the bridge players are.
Jim DeMint, Senator from South Carolina, when asked about the McCain rally incident responded with wisdom and class, “I think it’s a huge mistake for us to show that kind of disrespect to any candidate.”
Each of us needs to realize that even though we enjoy the freedom in this country to express ourselves, it should be done tastefully, respectfully, and thoughtfully. Criticism of actions, policy, and issues is proper. Name-calling, aspersions, and ad hominem attacks cheapen the public discourse and mitigate the potential good that can result from thoughtful and deliberative dissent.
Consequences of our indiscriminate expressions of free speech cannot be deemed censorship, since they’re not imposed by government. But associations, groups, and sponsoring entities can require a respectful decorum when being represented by common citizens, and fallout from indiscretions can be swift and substantive, as illustrated by the retribution heaped on the Dixie Chicks after their folly, with slumping CD sales, and radio disk-jockey’s refusing to play their music.
We may not be as high profile as those cited, but we all contribute to, or detract from, the quality of public discourse. Consequently, we can all make the personal decision to be a contributor to a mature, thoughtful discussion, or a gutter-dwelling dialogue that contributes to the ideological divisions so pervasive today.