“Does Free Speech Mean Correct Speech?” Mark W. Harris

 February 21, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist


Call to Worship   “When They Sleep”
by Rolf Jacobsen

(English version by Robert Hedin)

All people are children when they sleep.
there’s no war in them then.

They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.

They pucker their lips like small children
and open their hands halfway,
soldiers and statesmen, servants and masters.

The stars stand guard
and a haze veils the sky,
a few hours when no one will do anybody harm.

If only we could speak to one another then
when our hearts are half-open flowers.

Words like golden bees
would drift in.

– God, teach me the language of sleep.


Reading – from 1984 by George Orwell




After Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 for denying the Trinity, the first manifesto in favor of religious toleration was published. Sebastian Catellio wrote that people engage in endless disputes, condemn those who differ and pretend to do it in the name of Christ. Even if we disagree with someone, he said, we should allow them the freedom of conscience to express their opinion. Instead we end up hating, or even killing those with whom we disagree. More than 450 years later, we still seem to think we can protect our viewpoint by impugning, negating, even destroying another person. And what is the outcome? Recently I heard a very personal example when we were having lunch with our former intern Mark Caggiano. Mark was talking about his six-year old nephew, who is a Muslim. He was upset about hearing the boy look at a picture of a presidential candidate and say, “that man hates me.” The nephew had learned about the comments the candidate had made about keeping all Muslims out of the country. How would it feel at that tender age to know that the man who is seeking the highest office in the land hates you? This is not for something you did, or even said in this case, but for what you look like or where you are from. This man hates you for who you are. A six-year old Muslim American.

The Presidential campaign has been filled with daily doses of inflammatory rhetoric. I must confess that I have felt stymied by the response to such vitriol. Why so much hatred? It reminds me of the portion of George Orwell’s famous work 1984 where they rehearse Two Minutes of Hate. The crowd shouts out the name of the enemy, Goldstein, just as today’s politicians shout out Obama’s name to cheering crowds, who are whipped into a frenzy of hatred and loathing. This ends when the people’s “savior,” Big Brother, appears on the screen, giving the people a sense of relief and hope.

This campaign reflects the kind of discourse we are seeing in our lives, our institutions and our nation. We seem to either condone hateful, degrading speech or perhaps we try to create safe cocoons where no one is allowed to utter any challenging words, as is true on some college campuses, which should be bastions of free speech. But free speech is intended to mean we can disagree without making the person we disagree with into the devil incarnate. It is intended to allow for differences. Free speech means encouraging more speech, and the exchange of ideas, not the stifling of any speech we don’t agree with.

I was recently reading an article titled “Called to Hospitality” in a UU publication. The author asks a question about when have we encountered instances in our lives of radical hospitality. She had responses that included such experiences as hitchhiking, which can be both immensely helpful and adventuresome, but also can be dangerous. The author then goes on to tell a story about a church where an organist was greeted one Sunday morning by a stranger, who she encountered behind a locked door. After getting over the shock, she listened to his story, which included dislodging the latch on the church door during the week, and taking some food. He was a homeless man who the church then fed, and helped in various ways. The story struck me because I began to feel guilty about the way we responded to our robber, the person who was breaking in to our church last year. He was a homeless man who took food and money on more than one occasion, but we did not try to find out his story, but in fact we responded in the most frightened fashion possible, partly fueled by a preschool’s perceived fear of threats to their children. Yet no one was ever actually threatened in any way. He took food and money when no one was here. What if we had helped him in some manner, as we often do with homeless people who come to our door to use the Wright Fund? We even remarked after one robbery that he was careful of the way he removed the panel from the office door to break in, almost as if he cared for the building. Now retrospective guilt may be foolish, and we spent a lot of money to make the building more secure, but it does make me wonder if we might respond differently in the future. We are a church that should be about the business of opening our doors. We are a church called by our very reason for existence to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Would our response have been different if we stopped to consider the mission of the church alongside our fear of the perceived risks? Do we sing in our hearts “Come, Come, Whoever You Are” (continue with #188) – “Come, Come whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair, come yet again, come.!”

The central mission is that we will welcome you whatever your circumstances in life. We will listen to you no matter what you have to say. We will respect you as a person. We won’t hate you or reject you for the way you look, or hate you if we disagree with you. BUT, we may disagree with you. This has radical implications on all levels. In the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Republicans responded to the President with a true Two Minutes of Hate. In this context we learned about the enduring friendship of Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a liberal presence on the court. Most obvious is the fact that they could hold radically different political viewpoints, and yet be friends. Ginsberg points out the importance of free speech and the need for discourse about controversial issues. She said Scalia’s challenges to her forced her to more finely hone her positions, to reflect more deeply upon them, and ultimately gave her stronger arguments to support her views. Respect for the other creates a stronger, deeper relationship, and it is also is what free speech is all about.

There is an old adage, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” We say I love you, but what you did is wrong – for example, one child I know well once tried to ride on the back of a cat, as if it were a small horse. Many of us confront circumstances within our own families where we love our brother or sister, but we despise their viewpoint on religion, sexual identity, or gun control. Consequently we either avoid these topics when we get together, or we flatly state that we disagree, but try not to let it come between us as siblings. We may try to relate in other ways, so we continue to get along, but we don’t let our differences define our response to them as people. This can be a challenge because sometimes we fall into the trap of using the thing we dislike to bait the person. Let’s say I am a vegetarian. The idea of eating meat makes me ill, and I also know that animals are treated cruelly, but can I relate to you on another topic? If I look at you and imagine blood dripping down your fangs, or insert insults every other word about your carnivorous nature, there is no respect and no real relationship.

Many of us want minimal contact with those with whom we disagree. When Justice Scalia said that African Americans did better academically at inferior schools, and perhaps fewer of them should attend the University of Texas, my blood boiled at how racist he was. It is hard to accept his choice, and see it as respectable, but the important thing is that I don’t have to even tolerate the viewpoint because I have the freedom to express my own viewpoint, which is contrary to his. And it is also true that challenges to our perspectives can make us stronger and we can then speak out more clearly against it without impugning the person. In graduate school one of my history professors was scheduled to be in the front line of assault of an invasion of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945. Consequently, he believed that the atomic bomb was a good thing for the number of lives it actually saved, including his own. He was a fabulous teacher, but I was working actively at the time against the existence of nuclear weapons. His challenge made me research more, talk to more people, and put together a stronger counter argument to his mantra which was “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”

You might think UU congregations are ready made to respect differences with all our theological diversity, but in fact there are few groups that are more alike in their values than us. We have lost most of our Republicans, perhaps partly because we make it impossible for those who have a more conservative view feel comfortable among us. In our headlong rush to be more diverse we often embrace individuals who have been shunned or hurt by mainstream society. This acceptance and affirmation of those who society has historically expressed hatred for is a very good thing. Yet too often people who play football as I once did, or wear makeup or even vote Republican are shunned by the person keeping a scorecard of necessary liberal values. Sometimes we make the false assumption that a liberal is going to be tolerant and understanding of all people, while the conservative is the one who hates. But liberals can hate, too; can judge harshly those with different opinions. Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem gave us recent examples, trying to shame women into supporting Clinton.

So, we, too, need to address why people with different views do not feel welcome. We need to look at our own populations. A few weeks ago our guest speaker from UU Mass Action was talking to me after the service. She seemed happy with the service, and the response to her organization. But then she started to criticize me for choosing hymn #121, “We’ll Build a Land,” saying that it was offensive to Native Americans and it would be best not to use it. After that I scanned the text to try to find some reference to taking over the land or genocide, but it all seemed to be about building up a new land with a new vision for greater diversity. It’s about a better future. Then she went on to say that reciting brothers and sisters was offensive to those who are transgender. I immediately understood what she was saying, but when most of America is still only saying brothers, and not even mentioning sisters, and never using what seemed like inclusive phrasing, then I think we need more conversation. Can we really create a safe zone for every single identity? I also think that liberals often end up saying nothing, but may quietly disagree. I think we need to hear from these voices, too. Some years ago the UUA Board was torn about accepting the polyamory group to affiliate status. Polyamorists believe you can love more than one person in an intimate relationship. Thinking of adverse publicity, and probably some moral qualms, too, many UUA board members wanted to reject the application, but could not bring themselves to do so. So the Board voted out all the affiliate groups. Many of us were hurt and angry, and felt rejected. And this happened because the leaders could not stand up and say the truth, which was, we disagree with your stance to one group.

Unfortunately it has become acceptable to say very repugnant things and make them personal, when we should be encouraging true dialogue. As liberals we need to sometimes say, I don’t agree with that. It’s not merely the right to shoot your mouth off and not worry about the victims of that venom; it is stating a difference of opinion with respect and courtesy. Think of how immigrants are often labeled illegal. There is no such thing as an illegal person. People may do illegal acts, but that is not the same thing. And the solution is not to infantilize everyone or create safe spaces with no dissent, but to encourage responsible, respectful discourse to challenge each other’s judgment by seeking a greater truth.

When I went off to college more than forty-five years ago, my goal was to live in a community that challenged my assumptions about the world that I had learned in a working class family in a small mill town in Massachusetts. I wanted to learn in the deepest way about new truths and honest discourse. I expected to be listened to as I listened to others. I wanted to be respected, as I would respect my friends and professors. I often did not agree with them. But do I think colleges should disinvite speakers whom someone disagrees with or might be offended by? No, we need to listen to many viewpoints, and protecting students is not going to help them learn or grow. Today I don’t like what is going on in Israel, but even if a person is defending the country, that does not mean they are a terrible person. No one of us condones hate speech, but at the same time, we also need to realize that it is viewpoints that we disagree with, not the person, these challenges make us question our own moral and political stances, potentially deepening our conviction and knowledge, changing us, or perhaps making us stronger. Some years ago the UUA produced a pamphlet called “Can I Be a Jew and a Unitarian Universalist.” It was an honest attempt to be inclusive of a variety of religious perspectives in our pluralistic faith. But an organization of Rabbis was furious that we kept it in print, and wrote to tell us that it was offensive to Jews to think that they could remain Jewish and be some other religion, too. In our attempt to be open and tolerant of all faiths, we ended up being offensive to one group.

We want to include everyone at the table, but when we want to appease everybody, someone is going to disagree and be offended. It is the nature of discourse, but hopefully we can respect each other enough, and listen to each other enough that we can grow and learn from our discourse. Everyone will not feel welcome everywhere. We certainly want to broaden the circle of discourse, but the discourse still has to take place. We have to talk to each other, and tell each other our truths, our worries, and what hurts, threats or offends us. This is what an open society or church means. Let’s try to listen to each other, or else we end of with Two minutes of Hate or two minutes of silence. What we need is not less speech because of all the offensive things, but more speech. I think we need two minutes of listening and speaking with respect.


Closing Words – from Beverly and David Bumbaugh

Our church exists to proclaim the gospel

that each human being is infinitely precious,

that the meaning of our lives lies hidden in our interactions with each other.

We wish to be a church where we encounter each other

with wonder, appreciation, and expectation,

where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom and compassion

that we never knew we had.