Thursday, June 29, 2006

Abstract vs. Concrete

Rich Hailey has a post about free speech. Beware, it has some unkind language not fit for polite society.
So, where do I stand on the Amendment to ban the burning of the flag? Well, it's pretty clear that we've already set limits on how far the freedom of speech goes. It doesn't give you license to lie, or to defame others, or to disrupt the peace. Freedom of speech does not allow you to walk through your neighborhood at 3AM singing Sweet Adeline in 4 part harmony at the top of your lungs. It does not allow you to verbally harass somebody based on their race, appearance, or sex. We accept these limits on free speech because we've concluded that the harm caused by this speech outweighs the speaker's right to express himself. It's an application of the old saw, "Your rights end when they begin to abridge mine."

Here's my comment:

The problem with debates like this is that when making tough decisions, we tend to fall back on abstracts rather than deal with concrete situations.

Freedom of speech is an abstract concept. It's a principle that can apply to many, many, many situations. Anyone can probably list 20-30 examples of Freedom of Speech issues right off the top of their heads. Each of those issues, however, is a concrete situation. And each situation has its own unique circumstances and details.

Life and culture has dictated that we may no longer, in polite society (i.e. in public) use the words Rich specifies at the beginning of his post when referring to other people. Back in the 50's and 60's, especially in the South, it was fairly common but through several decades of education and enlightenment society has determined that those words are offensive and wrong, and should not be used. If you use them in public, you will very likely be ostracized at worst, frowned on at best. There were no laws that said so, no rules or statutes making them illegal - just the general disapproval of society. That "Freedom of Speech" issue decision was made automatically as a process of the evolution of culture.

Similarly, the restriction of "shouting fire in a crowded theatre" has actually become a law based on the acceptance of society. I doubt even the staunchest free speech advocates would fight for that right, because it's simply the right thing to do. Congress made it official, but society actually made the decision.

These two concrete examples were decided for us, so we haven't had to debate them. And society decided them because they were the right things to do to protect our lives and civility. In a similar vein you have restrictions against libel and slander. And revealing classified information.

Yet, in a strict sense, they are all limits on the 1st Amendment, the freedom to say anything you want to.

Flag burning probably should've evolved in a similar fashion as racial slurs - it should've become so deplorable a practice that nobody would do it, at the risk of social ostracization. But that hasn't happened, and there are people fighting to keep the right to burn the flag. And Congress has had to attempt legislation to outlaw it.

That's where the abstract vs. concrete debate comes in. To some freedom of speech advocates, the right to free speech in the abstract trumps the concrete immorality of burning the flag, so they go against the better nature of society and defend the abstract.

In this case, we would be better served to examine the concrete and weigh the pluses and minuses of flag-burning better. Then a better-reasoned, better thought out solution might apply.

Unfortunately abstract is all some people have left, so they fight for it tooth and nail - at the expense of societal decorum and respect for a symbol of our country.

Should anyone ever burn a US flag in protest? No, I can't imagine a possible reason anyone would ever want to. It's a deplorable, horrible practice. Should it be a legally restricted act? I wish it didn't have to, but since nobody should ever do it, and the abstract fighters who won't listen to specifics of this example resist such a restriction.

We all would be better served to not follow blindly the abstract concepts that make up our customs and laws, but to apply logic, reason and fairness in understanding how these laws apply to our culture, decorum and public respect. Then make your decisions based on all sides of the argument.

Is that too much to ask?

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