Free Speech and Applauding Appalling Behavior

There has been a video making its rounds on social networks of a girl, probably around 11 or 12, screaming “shut up” at a street preacher talking about Jesus and salvation. To my dismay, the numerous comments I see are from people applauding her behavior. I think the young lady’s action are not to be applauded but denounced. I understand that many people dislike street preaching. I understand that public preachers often say confrontational and disparaging statements. The preachers justify their position by scripture, doctrine, and traditions within their faith. The vast majority of street preachers I have encountered are ready and willing to engage in discussion and debate, and are willing to do so with a modicum of civility. But this is not what we see in this video. Instead of dialogue, engagement, and exchange, we find a young lady screaming in an attempt to stop the preaching altogether. Her screams are to silence and not engage. Her yelling does not foster understanding but animosity. Her obnoxious behavior mirrors the kind of obnoxious behavior which many condemn street preacher for displaying. She becomes a caricature of what she opposes.

Some are justifying her behavior by saying that during the Halloween weekend, many street preachers come to Salem, Massachusetts and tell the inhabitant they need to “turn or burn.” This young lady’s behavior perhaps expresses the frustration the local feel about this annual self-righteous pilgrimage. While I understand how the scenario they describe can be frustrating if one is not Christian, it still does not justify her appalling behavior. I also think the young lady’s behavior is a great example of the deficiency of dialogue and communication in our country. People today rarely engage is reasoned dialogue. Instead there are, at best, participants giving monologues, talking past one another, or, at worse, an exchange of expletives and insults. Sadly, this video is closer to the latter form of exchanges performed today.

In typical jeremiads, this is where the writer nostalgically opines for a time when there was more civility and they romantically imagine it was in the past. Being a historian, however, I have no such delusions. In many ways, today’s political dialogue, for all its faults, is still better than times in the past. For instance, in the debate about America’s participation in the 1812 War, a publisher of a Baltimore newspaper, The Federal Republican, found a crowd forming around his building upset about an editorial denouncing the war against Britain. The mob turned into a riot when shots were fired. The angry crowd pulled out ten people, beating most senseless, killing one, and setting fire to another. They also destroyed the printing presses and buildings. The publishers quickly rebuilt only to find a second riot later again destroying the printing presses. After this second episode, the publishers fled Baltimore, justifiably fearing for their lives. (Pasley, Tyranny of Printers, 246-248). Perhaps we are fortunate that he video shows a girl yelling instead of brandishing a weapon.

Nevertheless, the poor behavior displayed in both cases only underscores the wrong way to approach disagreement. Free speech is only possible when we tolerate the speech we disagree with the most. It is easy to support the speech by those of whom we agree or like. But free speech only means something when we support the rights of those who say thing of which we disagree. The young lady shouting “shut up” at the preacher is not an advocate of free speech. She is closer to the tyrants and dictators in the world dedicated to silencing the speech they dislike. This is not to say we should silence the young lady. Her yelling for the preacher to shut up is speech also. But we should recognize the consequences should she had gotten her way.

Category: Personal, Popular Culture
Tags: Christianity, freedom of speech, intoerance, Massachusetts, Religion and Pop Culture, Salem, street preachers


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